Yep. Monday night belonged to Michele Bachmann.
Let's be clear: If history is any indication, the Republicans are not going to nominate "a maverick" for president. The party has its share of them at the state and Congressional levels, but I'm talking about a presidential nominee who's a true outsider in the McGovern sense.
That was always Pat Buchanan's problem. It was where Jack Kemp hit a glass political ceiling. Reagan was the maverick when he lost in 1976. So was McCain in 2000.
That's Bachmann's challenge. And she stepped up, met it head-on, and exceeded expectations on Monday. Her strong performance should light a fire under Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who increasingly seems like he is considering a run himself.
The other big winner was Romney, who comes from the other wing of the GOP -- the one where the nominees traditionally live. The big loser, of course, was Pawlenty, who grabbed media attention on the Sunday talk shows with his buzzword "Obamaney Care" and flubbed miserably on Monday, when he had a chance to keep up the momentum on a true national stage.
Pawlenty wrote a book called Courage To Stand, but he didn't have enough courage to stand by that claim, much less plant it firmly on Romney's forehead when the two were face to face. It was more than a missed opportunity; it was an affirmative mistake that reinforced his milquetoast image.
Romney walked on stage Monday at St. Anselm College as the frontrunner, and Pawlenty's fumble let him leave largely unscathed. Romney showed cool in a cool medium and came across presidential. His campaign experience was evident.
But this group is far to the political right of the 2008 GOP field, and that is Bachmann territory. Being ultraconservative helps in this early phase. Down the stretch Republicans are going to think increasingly about who can beat Obama. They are going to ask who can appeal to independents and conservative Democrats. That is Romney's biggest asset, and he lucked out because the others chose to use this first debate to introduce themselves in a positive light rather than to attack him.
The key thing Bachmann did was move out of Sarah Palin's shadow. She showed news savvy by announcing she had filed her papers and was an official candidate. She showed political savvy by being the first one in the first debate to swiftly and firmly promise to eliminate the Obama health care program. It made the rest of the group, who scampered to restate their own similar positions, look like they were following her lead.
Bachmann carefully introduced herself in terms of her real work as a member of Congress, but her most impressive moment -- the one where she showed real message savvy -- was when she tied health reform in a negative way directly to the issue Obama is trying to seize: jobs. She cited a study that shows it's a job killer. An 800,000-job killer. It was a political twofer and a signal she is ready to campaign at a sophisticated level.
Bachmann's biggest job right now is to convince political insiders who know her as a bomb thrower that she is more than a "movement candidate." If she is serious, she can't be the GOP's Dennis Kucinich. She clearly is the candidate that the Tea Party is most comfortable with and, like it or not, that means she has a real Republican constituency.
Perry (and Palin) are Bachmann's strongest competition for those voters, but both are still playing coy. Perry doesn't have the national exposure Palin has, so he can't wait as long as Palin can to enter the race. If he is serious, Bachman's strong showing was bad news for him.
Ron Paul has a constituency, but nobody believes he is going to get the nomination. Romney has a national base of supporters left over from four years ago. The rest of that group is hoping for the type of "catch fire" opportunity Pawlenty flubbed.
I worked on Ann Richards' campaign in 1994, when many Texas Democrats didn't take George W. Bush seriously until it was too late. I watched Al Gore and national Democrats make the same smug mistake six years later. I'd never vote for Bachmann, but in terms of making the most of a specific campaign moment, I'm not afraid to give her kudos for an impressive job on Monday night.