This worked pretty well in Ames, Iowa so let's do it again. Here are my pre- and post-debate impressions.
This is down to three people. There will be eight candidates on the stage, but only three matter anymore: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachman.
- Rep. Michele Bachman
Much as she had to do in New Hampshire at the first debate, Michele Bachman has to show she belongs in the top tier (again?). Winning the Iowa Straw Poll may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, as Gov. Rick Perry's entry into the race on that same day cast a Texas-size shadow over the political landscape and the loss of her two top operatives this past week cast a shadow over her campaign.
Nevertheless, Bachman showed she can more than hold her own in the first two debates. She may decide to lay low for the first 30-45 minutes and see how Perry and Romney react toward each other, but at some point she has to get herself back into this game.
- Gov. Mitt Romney
Romney has had more-or-less a free ride in the debates to this point, but that was largely because he didn't need to do much. In each of the first two debates Bachman and Gov. Tim Pawlenty made news: Bachman because she performed well, Pawlenty because he didn't.
Romney, as the front-runner has been able to rise above it sort of a parent watching the kids have a dunking contest in the country club pool; ready to intercede if necessary, but perfectly willing to stay dry if not.
This is different in that Perry's shadow has blocked out the sun for Romney as well as Bachman. Romney doesn't have to throw a knock-out punch tonight, but he probably wants to begin selling the line that of all the candidates on stage - notwithstanding the Tea Party movement - he's the only one who can beat President Obama next Fall.
- Gov. Rick Perry
For someone not named "Sarah Palin," Perry has certainly upset the old applecart. Since he got into the race just over three weeks ago, he has been the topic of conversation and, has climbed to the top of the polling. That, as we know, translates into dollars raised which translates into staff hired, and infrastructure built.
Perry has more to lose than anyone else tonight because he hasn't participated in any previous debates and a significant portion of the GOP electorate will be watching to see if he can stand up to Bachman and Romney over the 105 minutes.
Perry doesn't have to prove he can beat Obama … yet. He has to show he has the depth and breadth of knowledge to be President - or at least to be a serious Presidential candidate. If he does, then the next couple of weeks will be more of the same "Chasing Perry" game we've seen over the past two. If he doesn't, then Perry's star might flicker out as quickly as it burst into view.
- The Rest of the Field
Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman and, yes, Ron Paul will be on the stage but won't be accepting the GOP nomination next August in Tampa, Florida.
Huntsman still hopes he can find a way back to the grownup table, but even his media blitz of the past week hasn't gained him much attention.
Newt Gingrich. The current theory is, he's staying in until he can qualify for matching funds so he can pay down his debt. Not exactly a strong position, but he'll try to make news. After finishing eighth in the Iowa Straw Poll his campaign released a statement that it capped off a strong week. One applause line does not a week make.
Herman Cain has never regained his momentum since the New Hampshire debate when it was clear he simply hadn't done his homework on major issues.
Rick Santorum is very knowledgeable but is not just fishing out of the shallow end of the pond, but is fishing in a narrow inlet in the shallow end of the pond.
Ron Paul will continue to be in these debates because his extraordinarily loyal followers will keep raising money and will keep him high enough in the polling to qualify. Nevertheless …
Winners(in this order)
- Jon Huntsman's batteries finally got charged and he got away from what appeared to be his reluctant candidate act in the Iowa debate. He was engaging, informed, and lively. Huntsman (or his staff) needs to find venues this week where he can build on the energy he showed in this debate.
- Mitt Romney. Although he sounded a bit amped-up in the early stages, he got into his groove as the debate wore on. He appeared to be in control of the subject matter, he has learned to deflect criticism, and continued to look Presidential. It was clear that his handlers decided he needed to draw a bright line between the Governor of Texas and the former Governor of Massachusetts.
- Rick Perry was a little rusty and a little too pat in some of his answers, but certainly more than held his own among his more experienced (in 2012-cycle debates) colleagues. When he was asked to defend items in his book like Social Security, he seemed perfectly comfortable doing it. He more than met the test of knowing enough to be a Presidential candidate.
- Newt Gingrich. No one cheerleads better than Newt. Anti-media. Anti-Obama. Anti-moderators. It isn't going to resurrect his campaign, but he's still fun to listen to.
- Michele Bachman didn't get into the debate until 8:14 and never seemed to get into a rhythm. If she needed to reboot her campaign in the Perry era, she didn't do it. It seemed to me that NBC's Brian Williams and Politico's John Harris spent much more time and energy attempting to get Romney and Perry to snipe at one another, to Bachman's misfortune.
- Herman Cain was better in this debate than in the previous two, but he still speaks in platitudes not in specifics.
- Rick Santorum was a pretty good Congressman and Senator but he is never going to make people believe he is able to step up in class to the Presidency. He is not embarrassing, but he's not going anywhere.
- Ron Paul sounded like the cranky old grandfather whining about the kids running over his lawn to retrieve their baseball. The act is, finally, old.