This will be brief because I didn't actually watch the first major televised debate of the GOP nomination race. I couldn't bear to. There will be plenty more chances to endure one.
So, in short, what seems to have happened is this:
- Mitt Romney did well. Whatever his faults, Romney is a fiercely competitive candidate and a diligent self-improver, so it shouldn't be a surprise that his debating style has improved, or that his answers were well-prepared and fluent, even on that difficult question about how he can oppose Obamacare when it looks very much like the Romneycare he introduced as governor in Massachusetts. But the pundits and the GOP establishment (ie the only people really paying attention at this stage) were somewhat surprised, and suitably impressed. Romney's frontrunner position has solidified. This was helped by the fact that...
- Tim Pawlenty was deemed to have bombed. He reverted to type - bland, inoffensive, verging on invisible - at precisely the moment he should have been punching through. Crucially, he failed to attack the frontrunner, Romney, on healthcare or indeed anything else. If not now, when? Pawlenty is acting like he's the frontrunner, when he needs to scrap like hell if wants to even be a strong challenger. This is making people think he may not have what it takes.
- Michele Bachmann did very well. She announced that she'd filed papers for her run - a neat way to steal the moment - and performed with confidence throughout, making her comparatively junior political status (she's in the House of Representatives) sound relatively substantial. As Nate Silver has remarked, Bachmann is what Palin should be by now if she is going to be a serious challenger. Unlike Palin, Bachmann seems to have put in some work on the policy front, and thought hard about how to make herself more than just a rabble-rouser. What's more, she is rapidly closing down any remaining space for Palin to enter this race.
- The others are sideshows. The only other real players are those who haven't announced their candidacy yet. Huntsman does so next week. He may feel encouraged by Pawlenty's weakness, which means there's more space for a moderate anti-Romney (though how on earth he squares the circle of working-for-Obama to running-against-Obama is still a mystery). Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, is rumoured to be on the verge of jumping in. Perry, a hardline conservative, is brash, charismatic, has great hair, is very...Texas. His plan will be to be the anti-Romney of the right.
So there you go. Best report/analysis of the night is - as usual - Nate Silver's.