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The End of the Beginning

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"These debates do have winners," wrote the Wall Street Journal's Neil King in that paper's "Washington Wire" column last night after keeping up a running commentary on the GOP gathering in Orlando.

"And more than any other contest so far this year," King continued, "this has a clear one: Romney, hands down."

King's opinion was shared by other MSMers including Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post and Time's Mark Halperin.

"In each of the five debates, we’ve named Romney a winner," Cilizza wrote in his post-debate wrap-up. "But, it’s hard to argue with the performance he gave tonight — particularly in the second hour of the debate where he was steady, presidential and, gasp, funny," he concluded.

Halperin gave Romney the only "A" grade of the night, with Rick Santorum gathering a B+ and the rest of the field at C or lower.

The MSMers matter especially to the tone of the national coverage as the campaign heads into the next three week period, a break from the debate march that has seen the candidates repeatedly clash over the past few weeks. (The candidates don't gather again until October 11, at Dartmouth College. The complete debate schedule is here.)

During this period of time the MSM especially will refine and repeat a set of observations that will become assumptions, assumptions that can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The first is that Mitt Romney is by far the most skilled and prepared debater of the GOP group, and that his message and team are most ready for prime time and thus to defeat a sitting president, never an easy task. Romney's surge in New Hampshire represents the sort of data point that points to genuine momentum among early voters in a key state, the sort of move that happens when the fence-sitters start to get off and pick sides.

The next is that Rick Perry starts each debate strong and then fades, an odd sort of assessment that I haven't observed while watching but which has picked up momentum among the commentariat. Perry hasn't actually stumbled in any "Poland is free" sort of way, but the expectations set for him were high and he hasn't yet pummelled Romney or issued the sort of memorable one-liner that can define a candidate (e.g. "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.") The in-state tuition issue is the real iceberg ahead of him, and his defense of it needs refining.

The third prong of what I expect will be the dominant conventional wisdom of the weeks ahead is that Rick Santorum looks like the dark horse of the race who could actually move up and quickly. Santorum is an experienced, confident debater with a long resume of consistent, principled conservatism whose loss in the GOP nightmare year of 2006 has unfairly obscured his two state-wide wins in blue Pennsylvania. Santorum is staking everything on an early upset showing as he told me on air this week, and if Perry's early support begins to crack, the beneficiary will be the former senator, not the current congresswoman.

The next week will be a furious bit of fundraising to get the Q3 numbers up as high as they will go, and perhaps some of the endorsements that matter will fall before the next debate as well as key governors and senators realize that only the early displays of support matter much come Cabinet time.

Team Romney will have to work to avoid overconfidence, Team Perry to keep the conservative base convinced that he is the real deal and that the race is barely begun or the debate season hardly upon us. Rick Santorum just has to keep doing what he has been doing --he is the only place for the dissatisfied to go unless Governor Palin turns the table over.

Baseball's season runs from April to October, with a couple of extra months thrown in for spring training. Presidential campaigns are even longer, and we are in the April of that season right now. After the first month of baseball this year, the Cleveland Indians were 18-9, and everyone on the club was playing the baseball of their lives.

The Tribe is headed home for the winter now, the playoffs beginning without them. If only they had kept it going for one more month.

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