And the winner of the debate was.... The Tea Party!
While each candidate's supporters will invariably think their candidate excelled during the debate, it is important to also focus on the general 2012 field. I think many people were proud to see the 2012 field articulate conservative principles with more passion and consistency than the '08 crop of candidates. For all of the talk about the lackluster field, those of us in the Tea Party should be proud that we have successfully changed the narrative.
In 2008, Republicans were in an awkward position following 8 years of an unpopular Republican president, who for the most part, was not conservative. Most of the candidates merely gave lip service to low taxes and "staying the course" in Iraq. Fast-forward four years and we have a presidential field in which the narrative revolves around the proper role of government, and to some extent, the prudent use of military intervention. Again, putting aside each candidate's strengths and weaknesses, we are at least focusing on the proper role of government, thanks to the Tea Party (and Obama). For that, we are all winners.
In terms of the individual candidates, Romney obviously escaped the debate without any gaffes or personal attacks from the other candidates. As such, he kept his frontrunner status intact - to the extent that he really is the frontrunner. However, unlike most of the other candidates, he failed to shine on any particular issue or response. This was largely by design, as he chose to play it safe.
Michelle Bachmann gained the most from the debate. She offered passionate, succinct, and purely conservative answers to all of the questions; showing her critics that she is smart and savvy, along with her brand of hard-core conservatism. It was a surprise to many in the media who consider unvarnished conservative women to be neanderthals, but it wasn't a surprise to us.
More importantly, she effectively utilized one of the advantages that she has over the rest of the field (except Ron Paul); she is an outspoken sitting member of Congress. While some of the other candidates have been out of the game for a while and only distantly involved in the current political fights, Bachmann was able to tout her involvement in every major issue. She was able to say that she sponsored one of the first Obamacare repeal bills; she was able to distinguish herself as one of the few members to propose complete repeal of Dodd-Frank. Bachmann also skillfully weaved in her foreign policy credentials by pointing out that she sits on the Select Intel. Committee and has vocally opposed the Libyan operation from the onset.
Bachmann was the obvious attention grabber from the debate and has positioned herself well for Iowa. The idea that a Congressman cannot win the nomination is outdated, especially in this unprecedented political era.
Tim Pawlenty probably lost the most from this debate; not because he failed to offer some substantive answers, but because he showed tepidness in vouching for his attack on Romney in person. On the other hand, it must be said that the lack of animus amongst the candidates is kind of pleasant for the time being. Pawlenty offered some knowledgeable and conservative statements, especially regarding immigration. However, he failed to capture the attention and energy of the debate. The same can be said for Herman Cain. Unlike last time, he couldn't harness the energy in his direction. It will be hard for him to grow in this race if Michelle Bachmann gains traction with the right.
I don't think any of the other candidates changed their status in any meaningful way after this debate. Each candidate, including Ron Paul, had some shining moments and said things that conservatives would like, but nobody stood out. Mitt Romney was the only candidate who didn't say anything that was memorable. Then again, given his dubious frontrunner status, he effectively and tenaciously played it safe.
The big looser of the debate? Liberal moderators. It's time to have conservatives moderate the debate and ask questions that will prompt the candidates to elaborate on issues that they would otherwise avoid. These debates will offer the same distractions about the same coined questions based upon liberal premises. Maybe we need to draft Erick Erickson as debate moderator?