Romney in Front as Feisty Bachmann Gains on Pawlenty

Barack Obama did not watch the Republican presidential candidates' debate in Manchester, N.H., on Monday night, we are told. He was busy addressing a campaign fundraising event in Miami.

If Obama had TiVo'd the debate, he would have seen a full crowd in the glitzy, cavernous hall in St. Anselm's College. Something of a contrast to the empty seats at the top level of the gleaming Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, even though tickets ran as low as $44.

The standard rule in politics is to hire a hall that's not big enough for the crowd you expect. This was no problem for the Obama campaign in 2008, when it filled venues as large as Invesco Field in Denver and Grant Park in Chicago.

The comparative crowd sizes Monday night suggest that, as in the 2010 elections, the balance of enthusiasm has shifted to the other side.

There were two clear winners in the Republican debate. I have argued that there is no front-runner for the Republican nomination, but Mitt Romney certainly looked like one. His clear vulnerability is his Massachusetts health care program with its Obamacare-like mandate to buy health insurance.

But no one called him on it. Tim Pawlenty, who had criticized "Obamneycare" on "Fox News Sunday," seemed to take that back at St. Anselm's. Romney responded by saying that if Obama had asked his advice he would have said that Obamacare wouldn't work.

In doing so he showed the sense of command that is one quality Americans usually seek in a president. And he continually brandished his businessman's credentials by attacking Obama's economic policies as disastrous.

The other clear winner was Michele Bachmann, who took the occasion to announce her candidacy and who was clearly well prepared for likely questions.

She batted back CNN moderator John King's suggestion that she was irresponsible in opposing an increase in the federal debt limit by quoting another statement opposing it-- by then-Sen. Obama. She declined King's invitation to pick a fight with those who favor abortion in cases of rape and incest. She cited her opposition to the $700 billion TARP legislation in 2008 by saying that principle comes before party.

And she made sure to mention that she had worked as a tax attorney, raised five biological children and provided a home for 23 foster children.

Pawlenty and Bachmann, both from Minnesota and occasional antagonists in politics there, seem headed for a confrontation in the Republican straw poll to be held in Ames, Iowa, on Aug. 13. That's a contest that puts a premium on enthusiasm-- you have to get people to drive up to four hours on a Saturday morning.

Both have an obvious appeal to religious conservatives who have been the dominant force in Iowa Republican contests. Pawlenty has had a head start in organizing, and as a two-term governor has seemed to have a stronger claim to be a serious candidate. But the two came out of the debate seeming more evenly matched than he surely hoped.

Romney is not competing in Iowa as he did in 2008, when he won the straw poll but then saw second-place finisher Mike Huckabee beat him in the January precinct caucuses. Newt Gingrich is evidently not competing in the straw poll, either.

All of which makes it likely that there will be a real traffic jam in New Hampshire. Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum have to do well there to remain viable. Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and Obama's former ambassador to China, says he will announce next week and will concentrate on New Hampshire and Florida.

And the field may expand further. Rick Perry, governor of Texas, the state that has been America's leading job producer over the past decade, showed no interest in running until last month. But now he's giving speeches in California and New York and may be ready to saddle up. And Rudy Giuliani, whose 2008 campaign fizzled out, is eyeing New Hampshire as well.

Then there is House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, whose name was mentioned favorably 10 times in the debate. Only two things seem certain about the Republican race. Ron Paul will soldier on, bashing the Federal Reserve, to the end. And the energy and enthusiasm on display Monday night will produce some twists and turns no one will predict.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Gage Skidmore/flickr/CC

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