There was pretty much of a consensus amongst analysts that last night's Republican party debates had 2 clear winners - Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann and one clear loser - Tim Pawlenty.
Romney, as the leader of the pack, won by simply not losing and by concentrating on his two strong points: Dissatisfaction with the economy and the universal Republican desire to oust Obama. Recent polls show that Republicans are more interested in beating Obama then in fielding a candidate who agrees completely with their views.
This runs in the face of the midterm elections, and more importantly, the primaries that preceded them, in which the Republican Conservatives came out in droves and ousted veteran office holders who did not reflect their views.
If this sentiment holds up, it will help Romney with the social and fiscal conservatives who are not convinced that he is one of theirs but simply want to beat Obama.
The desire to work for Obama's defeat helps Romney in another way. If the overwhelming desire is to field a Republican candidate and marshal all the campaign contributions against Obama rather than internecine warfare, Romney, as the front runner, is best equipped to claim the mantle.
Michelle Bachmann had a strong performance in which she buttressed her position as standard bearer of the conservatives without coming across as a crank. Her successful appearance is a blow to fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty who was counting on his ability to rally the stop-Romney forces, a large chunk of whom are conservative Republicans. Pawlenty cannot overtake Romney without the conservatives and if he lags behind Bachman in that sector the jig is up.
What was worse for Pawlenty was his inconsistency. He had seemed to go for Romney's Achilles' heel by labeling his medical insurance program in Massachusetts "Obamneycare" in a previous Fox news interview. Here was Mr. Nice showing that he could be a pitbull with a killer instinct.
In the debate he was given an opportunity to follow up on the attack, but reverted to being Mr. Nice. It is possible that the former Minnesota governor also saw the polls and did not want to sound a discordant note when his rivals were lambasting Barack Obama in unison.
However, the appearance of wishy-washyness can be fatal for a candidate. Pawlenty has to get onto the scoreboard quickly and in a big way. He definitely missed his chance for a score and saw another rival eclipse him.