This early in the season, a presidential primary debate is essentially about winning the battle of the buzz. On a crowded stage, the objective is to separate oneself in a way that captures media attention and drives post-debate conversation. The contender who best accomplished that in Monday's CNN New Hampshire debate is Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman with a singular talent for seizing the spotlight. Compared to her six male opponents, Bachmann came across as scrappy and forthright. You may disagree with every word she says, but there's no question the woman has the courage of her convictions.
Bachmann's fluency as a presidential debater complicates the fortunes of her rivals. Her ideological purity makes Mitt Romney look all the more wishy-washy. Her vivacity heightens the mind-numbing dullness of fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty. Her can-do gumption reduces Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul to the status of cranky old men. Her social conservatism puts Rick Santorum to shame -- Bachmann can trump Santorum's seven children with a whopping 23 foster children of her own. Only Herman Cain is as plainspoken and conversational, but politically he appears not ready for prime time-for God's sake, the man mispronounced "Chile."
Bachmann has the performance mechanics down pat. She knows how to deliver her message in sound bites, and she rarely shrinks from addressing the question on the table. Unlike some of the other stuffed shirts on the stage, she seems like a real person. This is a political skill that cannot be underestimated.
Bachmann's one glaringly weak moment of the debate was an ambiguous, contradictory response on gay marriage. Her position on the matter is muddled; about the only thing that's certain is that she stands outside the mainstream of popular opinion, on this as on most other social issues. The congresswoman's response on gay marriage represented a rare misstep, and it highlights the vulnerability she will face as a national candidate forced to step outside her right-wing comfort zone.
If Bachmann's performance now lifts her into the varsity ranks of Republican presidential contenders, Gingrich and Santorum just got pushed further to the sidelines. You have to wonder how many more debates they will get invited to, or what right-minded person would give either of them a dime. As for the others, Ron Paul will always be Ron Paul, which is to say more contrarian than viable candidate. Pawlenty performed adequately, but he needed to gain serious traction in this debate, and clearly that did not happen. Romney managed to emerge relatively unscathed, despite predictions from the pundits that he would serve as the debate's punching bag. That said, he's still not very likeable.
To the chagrin of her less media-savvy opponents, feisty Michele Bachmann lives to fight another day. Long after most of these other candidates have vanished from the race, it appears likely she'll still be standing.