Overall, I was impressed. The talking heads keep chattering about a "weak" GOP field, but I didn't perceive weakness tonight. I saw a panel of strong, passionate communicators, and a number of credible alternatives to our current president and his disastrous policies. My quick, early take on each contender:
Bachmann - A strong performance. She came across as informed, polished, and personally invested in many of the issues that conservatives care about. I'm not sure why she chose to officially announce her candidacy during the first question, rather than her introductory comments, but that's a small quibble. Many conservatives will be very pleased that she is in, especially after tonight.
Cain - Delivered a few good lines, but was not nearly as strong as he was during his en fuego showing in South Carolina. His refusal to get into any specifics on foreign policy is troubling.
Gingrich - Seemed unfazed by his recent staffing, er, issues, and did a reasonably good job. Newt often comes across as professorial and long-winded, and lived up to those expectations again. He also gave another muddled, unconvincing answer on his infamous potshots at the Paul Ryan plan.
Paul - Adhered to his isolationist, libertarian policy preferences, and seemed less angry than he often does. Got the biggest laugh of the night when he was asked to name one economic policy President Obama has gotten right. His response: "That's a tough question!"
Pawlenty - Unlike his South Carolina triumph, T-Paw stumbled out of the gate tonight. He recovered with solid answers on national security and abortion, but not before he appeared weak and unwilling to really challenge Mitt Romney on the Massachusetts health program. If you're going to coin the term "Obamneycare" (which I think could be very effective), you need to own it. He didn't tonight.
Romney - Tonight's winner, in my book. He looked and sounded like he deserves the front-runner label. Poised and informed. He breezed through the Romneycare non-gauntlet virtually unscathed, which is a shame. If the rest of the pack wants to dislodge him from front-runner status, they're going to have to aggressively challenge him on this issue. The former Governor appeared to be in full command, and even had the awareness to sneak in the Bruins score (good news for the crowd), a savvy move in front of a New England audience.
Santorum - An improvement over his rigid, stilted South Carolina showing. He gave several good answers (separation of church and state, foreign policy come to mind), but I wouldn't call this a breakout performance -- which, as a perceived second-tier candidate, he's going to need.
CNN - John King grunted distractingly through many of the candidates' answers, which was annoying to many viewers. In 120 minutes of debate, only ten minutes were devoted to foreign policy and national security, which I think is unacceptable with American troops engaged in three active conflicts. The frivolous "this'n'that" questions were awful and a waste of time. The set was beautiful and the format was innovative. I enjoyed hearing so many questions from undecided voters, but bells-and-whistles are less important than substantive, relevant questions. CNN's tech team deserves enormous credit, but the questions from Fox's panel last month were much more enlightening.
Feel free to agree, protest, or call me an idiot in the comments. Your turn: Who won? And what, if anything, did you learn tonight?
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography