The first significant GOP presidential debate is in the books and there seems to be near consensus about who came off well (Michele Bachmann) and who didn't (Tim Pawlenty). On Monday, we posed 10 questions that we hoped the debate would answer. For the most part, they were. Here's a look at the results:
1. Can Mitt Romney explain away Romneycare?
In perhaps the debate's biggest surprise, Romney didn't really have to. If this debate is remembered at all, it will be the Sergio Leone-tinged episode when Tim Pawlenty was directly challenged to slam Romney using the sobriquet "Obamneycare" and backed down. All that was missing was the close-up on Pawlenty's nervous eyes.
Romney then offered his now-standard response that the plan worked for his state and not for America--and essentially got a free pass from then on.
Romney's association with the Democratic healthcare bill will come up again--and again--but a large opportunity was missed clean.
Photos: Potential 2012 GOP candidates
2. Can Tim Pawlenty quicken anyone’s pulse?
Well, he did, but not in the way the former Minnesota governor wanted. You could make the argument that no one came out worse Monday night than the man they call "T-Paw." On Twitter, comparisons were made to LeBron James wilting in the NBA Finals, for heaven's sake.
The bottom line: Pawlenty was given a chance to dent his biggest rival and at the same time define himself as a fierce competitor in the process. To borrow language from the just-completed playoffs, it was an Alpha Dog moment.
Pawlenty seemed off his game the entire night. After Romney pandered to the crowd by announcing the score of the Stanley Cup game, Pawlenty tried the same tactic later. Romney, a New Englander, could only barely get away with something so shameless; Pawlenty, a hockey fan, had no such luck.
Can he recover? Of course. It's early. But Pawlenty, who has had difficulty finding traction in national polls, has been counting on the goodwill of advocates inside the Beltway and elsewhere to help propel his campaign. If some of those backers start jumping ship, then the climb grows that much steeper.
3. Can Michele Bachmann appear presidential?
Bachmann surprised everyone by suddenly declaring her candidacy for the White House in the early minutes of the debate, but in retrospect, it looks like a canny move. In an evening that offered little in terms of drama, Bachmann's largely symbolic announcement became major news.
The Minnesota congresswoman's performance overall came as no surprise to those who have seen her win over crowds at conservative events. And while she still came off as perhaps less than polished at times, her energy compensated. Most critically, she displayed an ability to weave personal narrative (raised in a broken home, mother to foster kids) with policy pronouncements (unapologetically anti-abortion). And although she has been in the House of Representatives for only four years, she telegraphed her experience like a veteran, particularly in answering a question about the Libyan conflict.
Fair or not, Bachmann, almost overnight, will now be viewed as a serious threat to win the Iowa caucuses. Her profile is blossoming--and at this stage of the game, buzz might be the single best currency to have.
4. Can Newt Gingrich rise from the dead?
Well, he was there. The former House speaker, reeling from the defection of key aides, pressed onward. Gingrich was in full Professor Newt mode, at one point interrupting Pawlenty and browbeating/lecturing moderator John King about his position on the space program. Gingrich is a smart man who can't help notifying everyone in the room of that fact--something that in a debate format can come off as pedantic.
Gingrich again tried to explain away his criticism of the Paul Ryan Medicare plan and the result was yet another iteration of the now-infamous "Meet the Press" interview, one where Gingrich now says he was quoted "out of context." (That produced eye rolls.) Yet almost in the same breath, he repeated his original assertion that House leaders had been reckless in moving forward with the Ryan plan as fast as it did, a fair point that runs counter to the current GOP orthodoxy.
If Gingrich has a track to hew in the race as it moves forward, it may well be finding the courage to be the candidate in the room who breaks with an establishment that, for all intents and purposes, has abandoned him already.
5. Can Ron Paul look like anything more than a fringe candidate?
If there is a word to describe the Texas libertarian Monday night, it was, well, cranky. Paul had a cantankerous answer for almost every question put to him, from America's military involvement overseas (he's against it) to the government's role in certifying legal marriage (he's against it).