The first major presidential debate in New Hampshire has just ended and the big winner is . . .
Well, there are two winners. First, there's Michele Bachmann.
From the start, Bachmann came off as a fresh voice . . . more remarkable perhaps because she was the only woman on the panel.
Bachmann also looked fantastic. She also offered the substance conservative voters are looking for. In fact, she gave it to them in spades.
She has real "street cred," as they say, as a genuine tea party conservative. She heads the Tea Party Caucus in Congress and reminded viewers that she has fought against her own party when principle demands it. For example, she opposes TARP and raising the debt ceiling when the GOP leadership in Congress supported it.
Conservatives loves this stuff. Bachmann tapped into the anger among GOP primary voters, some of whom are angry with her own party. But she did it without being angry herself. Bachmann's performance was Reaganesque.
If Republican primary voters want a candidate that represents them, Bachmann grabbed the night.
If, however, voters were looking for a Republican candidate who can win the general election in a close race against President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney was the winner.
With the economy teetering on the precipice and unemployment growing again, Romney came across as the man with both the political and business gravitas to fix the economy.
The former Massachusetts governor pressed the right buttons on economic issues. His explanation of what happened with GM, and why the Bush administration should never have allowed it to go into bankruptcy, was brilliant.
Romney did exceptionally well because the other candidates did not really challenge his Massachusetts health plan, which mandates every citizen get private health insurance. This is a key tenet of Obamacare.
In recent days, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has referred to the Obama plan as Obamneycare, a reference to its similarity to Romneycare. But in the opening scenes of the debate Pawlenty ducked.
Despite being egged on by CNN’s John King (who's hosting of the debate was flawless), Pawlenty clearly did not want to criticize Romney or expound on his previous criticism of Romney.
Romney's health plan is a serious concern. Fox News analyst Dick Morris has stated repeatedly that Romney can't win the general election because Obama's health plan so closely mirrored Romney's.
Tonight, Pawlenty missed an incredible opportunity to differentiate himself from Romney, the other big state governor in the race.
Pawlenty came across as honest, sincere, decent. But he seemed to lack passion. He also failed to tell us what he did in Minnesota for 8 years that will help us solve the nation's economic crisis.
Pawlenty didn't resonate while Romney and Bachmann did, as other candidates came out as likeable and believable.
Rick Santorum showed exceptional passion. He is a true conservative who wants to shake up Washington.
And Herman Cain is a straight-shooting businessman who seems like the GOP's version of Harry Truman.
Finally, we're left with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. They both appeared to fall into an intellectual chasm where their utterances might have earned applause but won't win votes and hearts.
Both Gingrich and Paul appeared tired and dour, their emotional range limited to permanent frowns.
And both seemed a prisoner of their own intellectual beliefs. Gingrich, trapped by three decades of policy statements and random utterances, rambled on about why he both hates and loves the Ryan plan or why he was for the individual mandate before he was against it.
Unlike Gingrich, Paul has been consistent in his views, but it is a consistency that shows inflexibility to the grave threats the nation faces. God love libertarians like Ron Paul, but their vision is a utopian one not applicable at the moment.
Overall the debate showed energy and excitement among the Republicans, one of whom will likely challenge Obama in 2012 on turning America around. It's early still, and the winner of debates like these may not turn out to be the winner of the upcoming primaries.
I recall that in 2008, Mike Huckabee was the clear winner in the Republican debates. Yet he failed to wrest the nomination from John McCain, though Huckabee would have made a strong presidential candidate in 2008 and a good president had he been elected.
So maybe there is a lesson here, the GOP should pick the winner of these primary debates as their candidate.