HANOVER, NH - We normally describe these rapid reaction pieces as "winners and losers" posts, but I'm going to slightly deviate from that trend tonight. To my ears and eyes, throughout most of tonight's forum, the entire field brought its A-game. The Bloomberg/WaPo/PBS triumverate came loaded for bear with a quiver-full of 'gotcha' questions, and by and large, the candidates parlayed them deftly. Let's evaluate the candidates in alphabetical order:
Bachmann - There might be something about Granite State debates that brings out the best in Michele Bachmann, because she had a fabulous night. Her answers were on point, she was engaging, and she may have given the best answer of any candidate to Charlie Rose's somewhat esoteric final question. Her personality, passion, and personal narrative shone through, and probably reminded many viewers of why she was once a top-tier candidate in this race. I will say that her 999 --> 666 quip may have been a bit much.
Cain - Welcome to the big time, Citizen Cain. As his poll numbers have climbed, so have the stakes. Cain's 9-9-9 plan was picked apart throughout the night by a number of his rivals (off the top of my head: Huntsman, Romney, Bachmann, and Santorum all questioned at least some of its elements). He emerged relatively unbruised from that pile-on, but in my view, he still hasn't adequately addressed several of the red flags I wrote about earlier. His three-part 999 tax hike prevention plan is full of holes. He said Congress and future administrations wouldn't raise any or all of his proposed three national taxes because (a) he'd be president, (b) the American people wouldn't allow it, and (c) he'd impose a 2/3 majority requirement to change the rates. The first answer doesn't address the reality of future Congresses and presidents; and the third point is procedural fantasy. The president can't just snap his fingers and invent new mandatory supermajority thresholds to protect his signature legislation. I'm also a bit wary of Cain's tendency to tell voters that he'll let us know who he'd appoint, or what he'd do, but not until after he's elected. Cain has performed splendidly in most of his recent outings, which helps explain his momentum. With that momentum comes tougher questions and more incoming fire. Cain didn't stumble tonight, but we're going to need to hear more specifics moving forward. Revealing his campaign's internal analysis on 9-9-9's effects on federal revenue would be a good place to start, especially since he called Bloomberg's numbers "incorrect." If you're going to direct virtually every answer back to your signature policy, you'd better know it backwards and forwards. I don't get the sense that he's there yet.
Gingrich - I suspected Newt would thrive in a wonkish, sit-down, roundtable format, and he did. He reprised his role as the GOP good cop, going out of his way to praise his competitors whenever possible, and turning the bulk of his fire on the Left. He used his opportunity to question a fellow candidate to ask a detailed, nitty-gritty tax policy question of Mitt Romney, which was a good challenge. One of Newt's best answers came early on, regarding Occupy Wall Street. He managed to blast the Left-wing agitators and hooligans, while empathizing with many Americans' sense of frustration and fear with many of our institutions. Masterful answer.
Huntsman - The former Utah Governor had a chip on his shoulder tonight, and unloaded a few zingers. Several of his questions and statements drew the ire of Mitt Romney, who snapped back in an uncharacteristically raw manner. There appears to be no love lost between the two men. Perhaps Huntsman's most memorable line was his brief acknowledgement of the Mormonism controversy I mentioned in my preview post. He prefaced one of his answers by acknowledging that since this was an economic debate, he wouldn't get into religion...then added, "sorry Rick," and glared at Perry. The message was pretty clear: This isn't over.
Paul - Regular readers are aware that I'm not much of a Ron Paul fan, particularly on foreign policy. Since tonight eschewed all non-economic subjects (including, to my surprise, today's massively important Iran-related news), I'd say Paul's performance was one of his best. His sparring match with Herman Cain over the Fed was interesting viewing, and he made some good points on the federal government's distortionary social experimentation dressed up as housing policies. Perhaps his most resonant moment in my mind, though, was when he lambasted both parties for contributing to the economic and political mess we face today. He said the GOP's impulse to blame everything on the events of the last three years is "misleading," and feeds the public's cynicism about Washington. And he's right.
Perry - Gosh, I wonder if Rick Perry's team decided he should focus on energy policy tonight? A great many of Rick Perry's answers entailed some rendition of a seeminly pre-scripted answer on unleashing the private sector through energy exploration and independence. Not a bad refrain, obviously, but at times, his answers came across as unresponsive. Perry's best answer came near the end (!) of the debate, when the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty brought up Solyndra. She did so not to draw attention to the burgeoning scandal, but to twist it into a gotcha question for Perry. Unreal. Perry attacked the Obama administration's disgraceful mishandling of the whole debacle and offered a spirited and clear defense of his record in Texas. It was the sort of sharp, thorough answer many of us have been waiting for from Perry. Too bad he wasn't more consistent. For much of the debate, he (again) seemed unfocused and slightly lethargic. Texans weren't kidding when they warned us that he isn't a good debater. Nevertheless, tonight was an improvement for him, which may be a testament to how low his expectations have fallen.
Romney - I might as well copy any one of my descriptions of Mitt Romney's recent debate performances and paste it right here. He's remarkably disciplined, on-message, and well prepared. He's the frontrunner, and his goal at all of these things is to keep that inertia moving in its current direction. Mission Accomplished, again. Now that Perry has faded, he's backed off Perry. In fact, he used his precious chance to pose a question to anyone else on stage to lob a softball at Michele Bachmann. It almost seemed rehearsed. Perry tagged him with a tough question on Romneycare (good!), but Mitt countered with an eloquent, smooth answer. It was problematic and disingenuous on a number of levels, but I bet it sounded solid and convincing to voters who aren't healthcare policy geeks. Nice job casually name-checking his plum new endorser, too. The Romney campaign should also send Herman Cain a bouquet of flowers for his answer on TARP. After Romney defended TARP in principle -- a position that will enrage many conservatives -- Cain was essentially asked to respond. As "the" Tea Party hero of the bunch, Cain pretty much agreed with and endorsed Mitt's answer. That will make it much harder to go after Mitt from the right on that issue. In short, Team Romney probably couldn't have scripted a better night for himself. I guess I'd have to call him the winner, but I'm getting tired of doing that. Will someone at least make the guy sweat, and rattle him off of cruise control for a few minutes?
Santorum - I thought Rick Santorum would have a good night because he'd provide strong, informed answers on the Iran terror plot. It never came up, but he still had a good night. Santorum has carved himself a nice "truth-teller" niche, and he isn't afraid to directly confront his rivals' policy pronouncements. He was a chief critic of 9-9-9, and also punched a hole or two in Mitt Romney's fifty-state Obamacare waiver pledge. As the evening drew to a close, Santorum managed to slide in some traditional values talking points (his wheelhouse) in a very savvy way, underscoring the point that poverty is driven by the erosion of stable, two-parent households.
Those are my two cents. Is my analysis spot on? Way off? Let the conversation continue in the comments section...
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