One of the big questions going into tonight's debate was whether Mitt Romney would credibly be able to claim "frontrunner" status -- and handle the presumptive attacks that would be coming at him from the other candidates. Clearly, he answered both questions in the affirmative, with a strong performance. That -- coupled with the fact that though other candidates performed strongly, none "blew away" debate observers -- was probably enough to give Romney a de facto win.
It strikes me that in tonight's field, Tim Pawlenty would be the most credible challenger to Romney, but he didn't do anything to advance the ball for his campaign. I like him and obviously, it's way too early to count him out, but he's going to have to work on his style if he is going to make it happen.
If there was a big loser, it was debate moderator John King and CNN. It continues to amaze me that Republicans continue to subject themselves to questioning from people who have minimal respect and even less understanding of their views and the issues that matter to Republican primary voters. The question about Tea Partiers vs. "mainstream Republicans" seemed to be an effort to drive a wedge in the center-right coalition; questions about FEMA and NASA, in the context of government spending, seemed aimed at producing an "opposition-ready" quote from the candidates that could be used by Democrats to paint them as "extreme." Nor is the gay marriage issue -- where all the candidates stand at roughly the same place -- likely to be as illuminating for Republican primary voters as a multitude of other issues. But it's an obsession with legacy media, so there the question was.
Finally, don't even get me started on the ridiculous "This 'n That" questions. Is there anyone in America who thinks something is "revealed" about a candidate in his/her preferences when it comes to pizza? Do their preferences for late night TV (or Elvis vs. Johnny Cash) matter when we've got an economy in a downward spiral, three wars abroad, and a burgeoning deficit? Talk about the apotheosis of silly journalism.
But all in all, it was a credible outing for the Republican field as it's currently constituted, and Democrats who are counting on a weak field to return Barack Obama to The White House had better not count their chickens.