I think Mitt Romney did not just win the New Hampshire debate by holding his own, but legitimately won it with his answers and composure. He was unnecessarily defensive on the Afghan question, but largely showed his experience with Presidential debates.
The surprise last night was Michelle Bachmann. If there was a winner of the anti-Romney coalition, Michelle Bachmann not only won, but won by a wide margin. Suddenly, for many, the flirtation toward Herman Cain and others will go in Bachmann's direction. Bachmann's stellar performance also contrasted with Tim Pawlenty who could have sealed the deal, or taken substantial steps toward sealing the deal, of being the anti-Romney candidate. Had his backing off of "Obamneycare" been later in the debate, i think it would have done less damage. But coming so soon into the debate, it clouded the rest of his performance, which had some really good moments. His defense of "right to work" was stellar.
Newt Gingrich needs to be kicking himself. He proved, yet again, he is one of the smartest guys in the GOP. His answer on Islam and loyalty was exactly what Herman Cain needed to do. His immigration answer was solid. But while he came across as the bright, ideas guy we all expect and know, there was no opportunity for him to show his viability — that will be a bigger, non-debate question.
By the way, Newt's answer on Islam and loyalty will probably be the soundbite of tomorrow. It was a stellar answer that, despite spin from the left, will not hurt the Republicans.
The debate failed to begin the movement toward solidifying the anti-Romney wing. If anything, Bachmann and Pawlenty's performances throw it into chaos. This leaves a very real opening for Governor Rick Perry or Governor Sarah Palin to come in and begin making the case for an alternative. The odds are growing, I think, that Perry gets in. He has nothing really to lose as he won't have to leave the Governor's Mansion to do it.
It is early, but it is less than seven months to Iowa. The clock is ticking. Perry coming in would be a disruptive event for many already in the race and he'd become the odds on favorite for people opposed to Romney to coalesce behind.