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The New Hampshire Debate: Michele Bachmann’s Surprisingly Mature Performance

Manchester, New Hampshire—Three quarters of 2008 New Hampshire voters in the Republican primary said, according to the exit polls, that the debates were “important” in making up their minds. But that does not mean that all debates are equally important—and the only safe prediction in the impossible-to-handicap GOP race is that few New Hampshire voters will remember last night’s surprisingly subdued and sound bite-free seven-candidate snore-a-thon.

The best justification for the debate—which CNN tried to enliven with high-tech razzmatazz—was that it was the kickoff of a TV series that will run non-stop until next spring. The purpose of the opening episode was to introduce the characters (six men and a woman marooned behind identical lecterns) rather than to advance the plot. At times it was enough of a meandering discussion that it might have been entitled, “Seven Right-Wing Characters in Search of Real Differences.”

Mitt Romney, who has been seldom sighted by anyone other than his top fund-raisers in recent months, is the only major holdover from the 2007-2008 campaign season. In his opening remarks, Romney alluded to his been-there-failed-at-that record as he said ruefully, “Hopefully, I’ll get it right this year.”

As originally scripted, Monday night’s plot was supposed to revolve around Tim Pawlenty’s challenge to Romney as the top-dog Republican on the CNN stage. Pawlenty offered a hint of what all political reporters crave—a conflict—when he cracked on Fox News on Sunday that the president’s health-care plan should be called “Obamneycare.” But, instead, Pawlenty and Romney took the high road—befitting their elevated status as serious contenders—and never threw a punch. The narrative that Pawlenty would attack Romney was always exaggerated since it is never prudent for a candidate to introduce himself to national voters as the Minnesota Mauler. All the pre-game hype ignored the pesky detail that Pawlenty had been backing off the “Obamneycare” line at every sidewalk press conference since he uttered the fateful words on Sunday morning.

The other candidates were supposed to be competing with 2008 holdover Ron Paul in the crazy-relative-in-the-attic sweepstakes. But Michele Bachmann never got the memo. Instead of playing her familiar role as a Tea Party troubadour, she came across as a right-winger who offered quiet competence and legislative experience. There were moments when she seemed to be channeling Bob Dole as a congressional insider: “I introduced the repeal bill to repeal Dodd-Frank because it’s an over-the-top bill that will actually lead to more job loss.” In fact, when the Tea Party came up in a question, Bachmann immediately announced that she was the chairman of the Tea Party caucus on Capitol Hill. Still, Bachmann knew from her years as a cable TV green room regular how to command the headlines—she became the first White House dreamer in memory to declare their presidential candidacy in the middle of a debate.

Much of the not-for-attribution talk (the only post-debate comments worth noting) in the spin room after the debate was about Bachmann. No one was suggesting that she had with a single bound become a serious candidate. Yet in a sense, Romney’s and Bachmann’s fates are linked, as they are both competing with Pawlenty. Romney views the former Minnesota governor as his major foe for the nomination and Bachmann sees Pawlenty as her major obstacle to scrambling the game board by winning Iowa.

While almost no one still considers Gingrich a serious candidate for the nomination, his performance in the CNN debate was a reminder that Newt—when he is not caught up in political pandering—has the capacity to play policy truth-teller. He returned in muted tones to the substance of his critique of Paul Ryan’s plan to eviscerate Medicare: “If you’re dealing with something as big as Medicare and you can’t have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you’re doing is the right thing, you better slow down.”

The debate should have ended the brief Republican fascination with Herman Cain, who brings to the campaign his real-world experience as, yes, the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. While Cain can be an inspirational speaker in the right setting, a debate with serious policy questions invariably will display his not-ready-for-prime-time generalities. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum—whose militantly conservative views on abortion and gay rights do not stand out in this right-wing field—seems destined to play the role of a why-is-he-here candidate cluttering up the debate stages while never saying anything interesting.

All of these overnight assessments can and probably will be adjusted after future viewings as the GOP contenders get used to the debate stages. But if on-the-fence Republicans like Rick Perry in Texas and Chris Christie in New Jersey were watching last night, they were unlikely to have been intimidated by the political talent arrayed on stage in Manchester. For the Republican TV audience, the only comfort was that it has to get better once the debates begin to matter.

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter (lucky you).