Yesterday I noted five things to look for in Mitt’s first debate. They were five questions, really. So do we have five answers? Yes and no.
1. How will Mitt respond to health care attacks? This was the night’s big surprise. No one went hard after Mitt on health care, not even Tim “Obamneycare” Pawlenty, and the mild attack that happened Mitt swatted aside. Mitt’s response that Obama should have called him was very, very effective and exactly appropriate for the context. But a word of caution: given the withering criticism Pawlenty’s receiving for beating a “hasty retreat” on health care, expect him (and others) to come out swinging next time.
2. What will Newt do? He didn’t have the big night that I thought he might, but as I thought about the debate this morning I realized that Newt labors under a debating disadvantage. Most Republicans think he’s brilliant, and there’s no doubt he’s incredibly bright, well-informed, and an idea machine. But that perception adds up to unrealistic debating expectations (I know my expectations were high), and it’s hard to distinguish yourself in a soundbite format that doesn’t play to your strengths.
3. Will Pawlenty be memorable? Well, yes he was. But not in the way that he wanted.
4. Could this be the beginning of the Bachmann surge? Oh yes. She did very, very well, and if Pawlenty’s star dimmed a bit, Bachmann’s flared brightly. The Left hates her and seeks to diminish her at every turn, but she’s smart, she’s got an amazing (and admirable) personal story, and she knows how to stay on message. I’ve long liked her, and I was thrilled to see her perform well. Michele Bachmann (that’s one “l” and two “n’s”) looks like an emerging force in the Iowa caucuses . . . and beyond.
5. What will Rick Perry think? The Washington Post’s Chris Cilliza thinks that Pawlenty’s stumble leaves Perry and Huntsman “licking their chops.” And that could be right, but it also could be the case that Bachmann’s emergence will make it harder for Perry to break through in Iowa. If Bachmann hadn’t done so well and Pawlenty had stumbled, I’d think that Perry would see a huge opening. If I had to bet, I’d still think he’s in, but the field doesn’t look as weak as some said, and after the glow of initial publicity he’ll find — like all the others — that it can be tough to shine in a multi-candidate field.