• The clear winner was Michele Bachmann, who kept her insanity bottled up very effectively, only lied once or twice, and made the rest of the group look like vacillating stooges. More on her in Rolling Stone next week.
• The 30-second answer format was asinine (they really had to rush these people that much in a debate that long?) and John King, who is normally one of the nicer guys on the campaign trail, was in the incredibly awkward position having to interrupt everyone like six seconds into their answers. I thought it was a microphone malfunction, but it turned out he really was grunting over all the candidates’ answers seemingly every few seconds. It was surreal.
• The last time I saw Mitt Romney up close, four years ago, he looked like one of the Nexus Six replicants from Blade Runner, and he always seemed quick, interested, and alert in debates. But he seemed mentally and physically fatigued last night. He and Ron Paul have both aged visibly since the last campaign (a reader emailed me during the debate: “Separated at Birth: Ron Paul… and Grandpa from Texas Chainsaw Massacre?”) and the former Massachusetts governor’s trademark eager-beaver act was missing. I wonder if this is intentional – maybe his strategy is to play the four-corners offense right from the start, let the wing-nuts run each other ragged in the early part of the campaign, and then trump the field in the end with a McCain-style above-the-fray, at-least-I’m-not-completely-crazy, wizened veteran pose. Romney to me is the biggest threat to Obama. People right now are focusing on all the negatives he brings to a Republican primary race, on his non-Christianism and his history of unpopular (to Tea Partiers) positions on choice and health care, but if he gets to the general election those same qualities will be positives to independent voters, and it’s not like there aren’t fiscally conservative independents looking for an excuse to dump the president.
• Man, I had forgotten in four short years how little there is in the way of actual ideas in presidential politics. Every single candidate last night was saying one version or another of the same thing: that the private sector rocks, the government sucks, we need to drill everywhere, reduce taxes and end regulation. The only area where they differed was in their choice of antigovernment metaphors. In that regard Cain’s “Obama’s putting all the money in the caboose” and Bachmann’s “three legged stool of Republicanism” made me pretty excited for the later stages of the campaign, when the imagery inevitably will get more and more tortured as the desperation to find new ways to say the same old thing gets more pronounced. I think Cain has real potential in this area and hope he hangs in there for a while.
• Hilarious watching Ron Paul sound off at length about the ins and outs of monetary policy while at least four or five of the other candidates stared nervously off in other directions, having absolutely no idea what the hell he was talking about.
• Newt isn’t going to make it to the New Hampshire primary, which is too bad, because watching his hyper-macho intellectual ego be battered by the reality of losing to Michele Bachmann is going to be extremely entertaining while it lasts.