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Debate Swings Door Open for Perry, Closed for Palin

Most people have better things to do than to watch a presidential debate eight months in advance of the Iowa caucuses. So when considering a debate like the one that took place among Republican candidates in New Hampshire tonight, it’s important to be mindful of the following:

First, the debate serves mostly to influence elite opinion — including partisan strategists, the news media, local party leaders, major donors and bundlers and the candidates and their staffs. Much less so ordinary voters, who are not yet tuning in.

Second, only a couple of themes are liable to be remembered days (let alone weeks or months) later. The subtle distinctions that a candidate draws on the differences between their Medicare plan and Representative Paul Ryan’s — that stuff will be forgotten about. Instead, it’s the “artistic impression” of the candidates that matters — as well as any actual, breaking news.

The candidate to break news in this debate was Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who announced that she was running for president. And then she performed strongly throughout, exuding confidence, and turning her service in the House of Representatives from a potential liability (in a field that also includes governors and senators) into a strength (by emphasizing her active role in formulating policy on the major issues of the day).

The comparison between Ms. Bachmann and Sarah Palin is perhaps made too easily. But as I remarked on Twitter during the debate, if there is a constituency of voters trying to decide between the two, Ms. Bachmann has a lot to offer. She’s considerably sharper on her feet than Ms. Palin, and has more discipline. She does not have the baggage of “blood libel,” a reality show, or having prematurely quit her term as governor. Her family story — a mother to 23 foster children, as she frequently reminded us — is every bit as compelling. She has considerably better favorability ratings — Americans who are familiar with her split about evenly on whether they like her or not, which is not true for Ms. Palin. She has a geographic advantage in Iowa, has devoted more time to her presidential campaign and has a reputation as a strong fundraiser.

That is not to say that Ms. Palin will necessarily engage in such a careful analysis when she decides whether to run for president. But it’s possible that she’s missed her moment — whether or not she decides to run. Rather than being a proxy for Ms. Palin, Ms. Bachmann may instead be preferred to her in the eyes of Republican voters.


Besides Ms. Palin, the other candidate whose decision will have the most influence on the race is Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Mr. Perry — although he has some vulnerabilities — could potentially fulfill William F. Buckley’s commandment to Republicans: nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable.

Right now, that role is probably filled by Tim Pawlenty — candidates like Mitt Romney (who performed quite strongly tonight) and Jon Huntsman are too moderate for some in the G.O.P. base, while those like Ms. Bachmann and Ms. Palin and Newt Gingrich may not be viewed as electable. If Mr. Perry was watching the debate tonight, he ought to have been most interested in Mr. Pawlenty’s performance.

And Mr. Pawlenty missed a major opportunity when he declined — after repeated prodding by the moderator John King — to critique Mr. Romney’s health care bill, despite having referred to it as “<a href="
“>Obamneycare” just a day before. For a candidate who is relying more on sound tactics and positioning than any inherent personal strengths, it was an awfully strange decision — Mr. Pawlenty gets a lot of mileage out of being the “anti-Romney” candidate.

If the Republican field were firmly established, one could understand the more deferential approach — Mr. Pawlenty will have plenty of time to attack Mr. Romney later. And nothing that Mr. Pawlenty did tonight is likely to matter very much with run-of-the-mill voters in Iowa or New Hampshire.

But the field is not set — Mr. Perry could decide to enter. And Mr. Pawlenty’s performance does matter with elites — and according to a National Journal poll, they considered him the “loser” of the debate despite an otherwise credible performance.

Given that Mr. Pawlenty is treading water in polls — moving up in some, but stagnant in others despite several candidates having dropped out of the field — Republican elites may be wondering whether he will “click” with voters and whether he is up to the task of taking on Mr. Romney and fulfilling Mr. Buckley’s rule. If Mr. Perry can instead play the role of “generic Republican” — only with better hair and more fundraising prowess — their support could shift toward him.

None of which is to suggest that two hours on a Monday night in June will matter all that much in the grander scheme of things. But at the risk of ignoring a couple of candidates who were not on the stage tonight, the four Republicans who seem as though they will have the most influence on the party’s nominating decision are Mr. Romney, Mr. Pawlenty, Mr. Perry and Ms. Bachmann.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.