Last night's Republican presidential debate in Manchester, New Hampshire was the first to feature the full cast of GOP presidential hopefuls, but that doesn't mean it featured a full slate of ideas. The debate ran through familiar Republican tropes about the evils of taxes, regulation, and abortion. But early debates aren't meant to showcase policy; they're meant to influence party elites.
Tim Pawlenty invoked his childhood at every opportunity, so much so that it's safe to say "I grew up in a blue-collar town" will become the new "My father worked in a mill." Mitt Romney attacked the president on job creation: "He's failed the American people both on job creation and the scale of government, and that's why he's not going to be re-elected." And Michele Bachmann re-upped her promise to repeal "Obamacare" upon entering the White House. All the candidates participating in the debate -- which also included Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain -- pledged their support for further tax cuts on "job creators" (read: rich people), and Ron Paul tried to outdo Pawlenty's promise of growing the economy by 5 percent with a suggestion that the economy could in fact grow by 15 percent -- provided we return to the gold standard, abolish the Federal Reserve, and dismantle the welfare state.
The most noteworthy exchange came early, when Pawlenty refused to reprise his earlier attacks on Romney's health-care plan, which he called "Obamaneycare."
"You chose those words, so one of my questions is why would you choose those words," CNN's John King asked. "Your rival is standing right there. If it was 'Obamneycare' on Fox News Sunday, why is it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor?"
Pawlenty demurred, and came back with a convoluted explanation of how President Barack Obama himself had compared the Affordable Care Act to universal health care in Massachusetts.
From that moment on, Pawlenty was deflated, and he joined Gingrich, Santorum, Paul and Cain on the sidelines of the debate, watching as Romney strode ahead with concise answers and clear rhetoric, bolstering his position as frontrunner in the nomination race.
Romney won the debate, but he wasn't the only person to shine. From the beginning (when she officially announced her campaign) to the end, Michele Bachmann came across as confident, competent, and capable of holding her own in a presidential debate. She drew her replies from her experience as a legislator, citing her bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act and her vote against TARP. As a Tea Party champion and the one of only two women in the GOP's political forefront, she's often compared to Sarah Palin. But she didn't sound like Palin in the debate. If Bachmann's goal was to distance herself from her association with the former governor of Alaska, then this debate was a success.
The event did make a few things clear. First, Mitt Romney remains the presumptive frontrunner, with his strong organization, good name recognition, and solid messaging. Second, while Pawlenty seemed like the natural anti-Romney candidate -- a conservative evangelical without the ideological heterodoxy that defined Romney's earlier career -- his performance threw that into the air. It confirmed a worry among party elites that Pawlenty is too uninspiring to succeed in a general election. As such, if Michele Bachmann continues to impress, she might emerge as the candidate for anti-Romney conservatives, though it's hard to see her winning the nomination: Republican elites want to win, and Bachmann represents the hard right of the GOP. Her nomination is a recipe for general election disaster.
With weak performances from everyone but Romney and Bachmann, this debate revealed an important fact about this race for the Republican nomination: There is a Rick Perry-sized hole in the race. The current governor of Texas, Perry combines the executive experience of Romney and Pawlenty with the rigid conservative orthodoxy of Bachmann. More than any other Republican, Perry could unite the anti-Romney factions to clinch the nomination, and according to recent reports, he is preparing for a run.