Showdown in Ames: The Republican Presidential Debate

So much for Minnesota Nice. The headline to emerge from the Republicans' first Iowa debate is the bitter scrap between the two Minnesotans standing side by side onstage, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and ex-Governor Tim Pawlenty. Chris Wallace of Fox News shamelessly goaded these rivals into a fight, and fight they did. Taking the bait may not have been smart politics for either candidate, but it did make for riveting television.

Two months ago, in her debate debut in New Hampshire, Bachmann turned in an impressive performance that propelled her candidacy forward. But Thursday night in Ames, the congresswoman suffered a bad case of sophomore slump. Bachmann did not get the better of her exchange with Pawlenty. As he attacked -- directly and with precision -- she stood lifelessly, staring straight ahead like an animatron with its power turned off. When he questioned her effectiveness as a member of Congress, the best she could summon by way of defense was her heroic efforts to save the good old American incandescent lightbulb.

Throughout the evening Bachmann's energy was off. Her big lines did not connect with the audience, and too often her responses sounded defensive. One of the strangest moments of the debate came at the halfway point, when the program resumed after a commercial break. While all the other candidates were shown waiting in position, raring to go, Bachmann's lectern stood empty, and only after the segment had gotten underway did she stride onstage. Even her look was peculiar, with a dress that appeared to have been designed by NASA and an errant string of pearls that shifted positions with each camera shot.

The evening produced several winners:

  • Pawlenty, not just for outfoxing Bachmann, but for seizing control of the stage and dispelling the "wimp" stereotype that the press had fixed him with. For the first time Pawlenty registered as a vivid presence in this generally lackluster field of candidates.
  • Mitt Romney, not for anything he did particularly right but for managing to successfully dodge the incoming artillery. Romney is an unusually consistent debater: he never gets better or worse than he already is, and he's solid enough that he generally lands on his feet.
  • Ron Paul, for his continued willingness to stake out contrarian turf. Half the time he comes off like the crankiest lunatic in the retirement village, the one all the other residents avoid at lunch. Yet much of what the man says is exceptionally lucid, and he is not afraid to say it.
  • Herman Cain, for being a reliably entertaining figure who brings a badly needed outside perspective into these debates -- they'd be a lot duller without him.

Neither hurting nor helping himself was Jon Huntsman, making his presidential debate debut. Huntstman performed adequately, although adequate may not be good enough. The former Utah governor exudes little warmth on camera; his affect is reminiscent of Michael Murphy in Robert Altman's Tanner series. But he does come across as thoughtful and intelligent, far more than your typical Republican politician.

Newt Gingrich had a mixed night. Whining about "gotcha questions" is never a wise use of debate time, and Gingrich did it twice. On the other hand, he made several interesting contributions to the discussion. Rick Santorum tried mightily to stake out his own far-right turf, but his stridency and utter lack of appeal make him difficult to listen to. There's a hectoring quality to Santorum's debate persona, one that functions as an automatic audience turnoff.

The flaws of Santorum and Gingrich will not be long remembered, however. In the final analysis, the debate in Ames was about Michele Bachmann, who lost ground -- and Tim Pawlenty, who gained it.