First Blood in Ames

The feature battle of the evening which drew the largest media feeding frenzy was the hand to hand combat between Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty. They each took some hard shots from the moderators who then appeared to revel with glee in the opportunity to thrust them at each other like prize roosters in an illegal cock fight. Bachmann was hit with what seemed a patently unfair question from Chris Wallace as to whether she would be “subservient” to her husband in the White House. She batted that one away with grace and style, though. T-Paw was quickly reminded how he had totally failed to confront Mitt in South Carolina, setting the stage for him to don his rhetorical brass knuckles. (Which he absolutely did.)

When the blows began falling, it was one of the most impressive displays of the campaign to date. “Minnesota Nice” very quickly had the bar lowered to, “not urinating on your opponent.” Pawlenty hit Bachmann on her lack of any substantive legislative record and no executive experience at all. Michele fired back, pointing to every pockmark on the former governor’s record -- real or perceived -- which she could drum up. I’m still not entirely sure who won that faceoff, but the voters were surely left with the impression that both of them had the “fire in the belly” required to square off with Obama in the general election debates to come.

The final two entries in the event are the hardest to rate. Herman Cain seemed to be facing two challenges, with one being of his own making. First, the moderators didn’t seem to want to spend much time hearing from him, and when they did he wasn’t given the easy set-ups to go after somebody else on the stage in the way the Bachmann vs. T-Paw and Santorum vs. Paul matchups played out. Cain also may have been hindered by a refreshing blast of honesty, so rarely seen among candidates. When asked about some of his previous foreign policy comments, he became “Plain Speaking Cain” and admitted that he hadn’t known much about Afghanistan, but had learned a lot since. I nearly stood up and applauded at that sort of integrity, but also worried that such admissions were powerful ammunition for his opponents in what is always a very dirty type of political trench warfare. But for the rest of the evening, the moderators seemed to try to keep Cain on the sidelines and there wasn’t much he could do about it. When he did get the chance to speak, Herman Cain was probably the most charismatic figure on the stage, but he wasn’t given much of a chance to shine.

And that leaves us with Mitt Romney, perceived front-runner and the assumed de-facto target for the rest of the field. I am frankly at a loss to explain what happened there. For my viewing dollar, the moderators -- with a few minor exceptions -- appeared to pitch Mitt a collection of policy softballs which he deftly drove out of the infield. The rest of the candidates were no better, seeming to forget that Romney was on the stage a few minutes after the opening bell. The one exception was when the moderator dared Pawlenty make up for his previous no-show and attack Mitt about “Obamneycare.” T-Paw took up the gauntlet in fine form, but Romney pretty much laughed off the attack and Tim quickly went back to attacking Bachmann.

So who “won” the debate? This is a question which comes up after every one of these exercises, and it never fails to make me feel tired. I often wish we had a set of Olympic judges to score these things, if only to stop the pointless posturing in the aftermath. Fans of each of the candidates will surely claim the mantle of victory, as was borne out in my e-mail in-box within hours. Even Huntsman’s team sent out a declaration of how brilliantly he did and how this would surely be the beginning of a triumphant march to the nomination. One blog proprietor had an online survey going immediately following the debate and informed us that Newt was taking a huge lead.

As for me, it’s very hard to make such a call. Bachmann was already looking good in Iowa, and she succeeded by not suffering any glaring breakdowns. (Though some of her attacks on T-Paw are going to be the subject of fact checking in the days to come.) Pawlenty had the most to lose last night, since another timid, “born to be mild” moment would surely have doomed him. But he rose to the occasion and came out fighting well above his weight class. Will that be enough to deliver the strong finish he needs in the straw poll to keep his campaign alive? We’ll know by the end of the weekend.

If we must pick a winner, I suppose I’ll have to go with Romney. And that’s not because of any brilliant performance on Mitt’s part. He simply managed to pull a bye in the head to head matchups. In the end, Romney is playing the classic, establishment GOP card of, “I’m who’s next.” And so far it seems to be working.