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The GOP's 'lovefest' presidential debate: Winners and losers
Republican presidential hopefuls played nice during their first New Hampshire debate — which may have worked out better for Mitt Romney than for Tim Pawlenty
GOP presidential contenders Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney share a laugh during a debate Monday in New Hampshire.
GOP presidential contenders Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney share a laugh during a debate Monday in New Hampshire.
REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
T

here were few fireworks at the first top-tier Republican presidential debate of the 2012 election, held Monday night in Manchester, N.H. The seven top declared GOP contenders — Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) announced her formal candidacy during the event — spent most of the two-hour debate criticizing President Obama, government, and taxes, but little time disagreeing with one another. The lack of discord doesn't mean the debate lacked winner and losers, though. Here, a look at three of each:

WINNERS

Michele Bachmann
"Bachmann all but stole the show at the Republican presidential debate," says Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast. Her smart, crowd-pleasing performance did more than exceed low expectations — it made her a serious "wild card" for the nomination. "And her gender and sharp tongue virtually guarantee she will stand out in a sea of blandness." I was surprised that this Tea Party favorite emerged as "the big winner," says E.J. Dionne at The Washington Post, but that's "the obvious conclusion. She was at ease and forceful without looking at all crazy or out-of-control."

Mitt Romney
The former Massachusetts governor clearly solidified his "position as leader of the pack," says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. But he only won because his "strikingly timid field of rivals" passed up opportunities to attack him, says Ron Fournier at National Journal. Mitt was the frontrunner going in, and "when a frontrunner leaves the stage unscathed, he's still the frontrunner."

Rick Perry
No Republicans dented Romney on Monday night, says Philip Klein at The Washington Examiner, which makes Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who isn't running for president (yet), "another winner in the debate." Perry now has a Texas-sized opening to enter the race. Many GOP elites see Tim Pawlenty as their anti-Romney candidate of choice, says Nate Silver in The New York Times. But Pawlenty disappointed on Monday, and if Perry can step into the former Minnesota governor's role of Romney alternative — "only with better hair and more fundraising prowess — their support could shift toward him."

LOSERS

Tim Pawlenty
There's no nice way to say this: "Pawlenty wimped out," says The Examiner's Klein. He repeatedly refused to trash-talk the "disastrous" health care reforms that Romney signed into law in Massachusetts, despite having derided the law as "Obamneycare" just a day earlier. That makes him look really "weak — like the guy who criticizes you behind your back and cowers in front of your face." The inevitable "wimp narrative" will really haunt Pawlenty, says Jonathan Chait at The New Republic. "Republicans like their men manly." After this "astonishing failure of of either nerve or imagination," T-Paw could easily slip "back into the second tier," says Jonathan Tobin at Commentary.

President Obama
While the Republican candidates were having a "lovefest" among themselves, they were also "highly critical of anything involving President Obama," says Joshua Green at The Atlantic. The whole debate, from start to finish, was "one long dig at Obama," says Stanley Kurtz at National Review, a "veritable tsunami of punchy, anti-Obama sound bites," unlike anything mainstream viewers are used to. Eventually, the GOP candidates will have to trade jabs, but softening up Obama like this will "strengthen whoever ends up with the prize" of the GOP nomination.

Herman Cain
The former pizza magnate was widely viewed as the winner of the first GOP debate — an event last month in South Carolina that failed to draw many big-name candidates — but this time, he "suffered from the presence of buzzy candidates and from a lack of new things to say," says David Weigel at Slate. Romney has the "business talk" covered, and Bachmann was the best Tea Party spokesperson on the stage. Before this debate, Cain could have been that "one candidate in the second tier who breaks through and becomes a threat to the frontrunners," says Reid Wilson at National Journal. Now it looks like "Bachmann is that candidate."

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