For all the complaints, some of which I have personally proffered, that the field of candidates has seemed thin, lackluster, and plain boring, the debate performances of the GOP presidential field, thus far, has proven me significantly misguided.
Gov. Romney, who led big in the state heading into the debate, most likely will be declared the winner by most observers. Not without good reason. He seemed relaxed. And the seasoning that 2008 had given him in his live debate performances was on obvious display.
But he was not alone at being at ease, and the Obama team had best be listening. This field is strong, and will likely grow in that intensity as the election season begins to dawn somewhere in the late summer or early fall.
I stated after the South Carolina debate that the GOP field looked strong, and that exhibition largely seemed like B-teamers. This field had much more of an "A-team" presence and the new faces turned up the heat in a very real way.
Here's how I broke down the individual performances and a crude ranking of how they placed.
1. Mitt Romney -- the leader in most polls in New Hampshire heading into the evening did little to hurt himself. His answer in defense of Romneycare as the basis of ObamaCare is still his weak spot, but he was aided in band-aiding it last night by the fact that no one on stage attacked him on it. That day will come. But his performance on jobs, the economy, even foreign affairs held up. Not much headway elsewhere in the country, but he holds his lead in New Hampshire going into the next season of the campaign.
2. Newt Gingrich -- it was in every way impossible to see one ounce of concern in his demeanor over the mass mutiny of his campaign operations just days previous. And when it came to substance on every opportunity to open his mouth, the Speaker not only made sense, he held his composure in a serious, compelling way that made language an art, and the expression of an idea a thing of poetry.
3. Michele Bachmann -- Leap-frogging to third place with credentials, appeals to the working person, and an articulate defense of common sense. Her best moments came in challenging President Obama directly on corporate taxes, on national defense, on the defense of life (an issue that greatly aids her on young voters) and her most direct challenge to Obama -- on Libya, citing Obama's own defense secretary in stating that America has no compelling interest in being there.
4. Ron Paul -- Congressman Cranky was gone and his enthusiastic nature and more concise answers had great appeal. In fact, his best moment in any debate in either run may have been when he indicated that he would need to interview the other candidates more in-depth before picking one to be in his administration. He avoided the legalization of heroin, and other tripups he'd been prone to in the last performance. By avoiding those tough topics, he was able to shine.
5. Tim Pawlenty/Rick Santorum -- disappointing that neither really stood out. Neither did anything to hurt their current efforts, but neither made great strides. Pawlenty missed an opportunity to draw blood on Romney, and that may not have been a bad move. Yet this is the second time he's taken a lesser path, and eventually the odds will catch up to him. Santorum was strong as always on issues that he has been defending since his first days in the Senate. Both men touting executive experience looked the part of a possible President. Both made strong appeals to the most cherished values of the social conservatives -- but that category was wholesale taken by Bachmann. How could it not be -- she's been married for thirty years, given birth to five kids, and raised 23 foster children. Game, set, match on the social stuff.
7. Herman Cain -- Cain was perhaps the runaway surprise finish in debate one. Still, in New Hampshire he looked shaky, unsure and his simple three- and four-step formulas looked more like desperate answers in this go-around, as opposed to someone who claimed to have a grasp of the facts.
None of them did perfectly. But none of them made any huge blunders either. And, therefore, the message of the GOP debates thus far is, "Team Obama had better be on notice."
Engaged voters are getting a wealth of information from the limited field, and as Gov. Romney surmised at night's end, "Anyone on the stage would make a definitively better president than President Obama."
Kevin McCullough is the nationally syndicated host of "The Kevin McCullough Show" weekdays (7-9am EST) & "Baldwin/McCullough Radio" Saturdays (9-11pm EST) on 289 stations. His newest best-selling hardcover from Thomas Nelson Publishers, "No He Can't: How Barack Obama is Dismantling Hope and Change" is in stores now.