: Pawlenty may just walk away the subject of both the debate's biggest process story (refusing to double down on his Sunday "Obamneycare" comment) and policy story (saying he'd let Medicare continue "as an option").
: Two-thirds of the way through the debate, there has been little dialogue regarding critical foreign policy issues like Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran - a stark departure from last month's South Carolina debate, which was dominated by foreign policy discussion in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death. It's telling that in the midst of two wars and one foreign intervention, fiscal issues have almost entirely crowded out any discourse regarding U.S. military policy.
: Santorum, too, passes on attacking Romney directly even when he's gifted a question on abortion, the issue he's most passionate about. He turns the question back to his own pro-life views, but now both he and Pawlenty have passed on chipping away at Romney's vulnerabilities. Romney's the frontrunner because they're letting him be the frontrunner, especially tonight. You can attack him on the trail, but it carries a heavier punch when it's direct.
: Major/minor flubs tonight: Pawlenty (refusing to stand by his Romney attack). Bachmann ("commanders in chief"). Herman Cain (Muslims in his administration). Newt Gingrich (didn't convince anyone on Paul Ryan answer). Santorum (apparently left early?). Romney? None so far.
: Gingrich was on the warpath from the outset, striking a distinctly stern tone that occasionally edged on hostile. The former House speaker failed to lighten up even when asked whether he prefers "Dancing with the Stars" or "American Idol," opting for the latter while remaining stone-faced. It seems that Gingrich, who has been dogged with questions about the viability of his campaign since last week's staffing exodus, senses his back's against the wall and is in no mood for pleasantries. Newt is determined not to go down without a fight.
: Here's a point we made in our Hotline Spotlight today: Every four years, one candidate in the second tier breaks through and becomes a threat to the front-runners. So far tonight, Michele Bachmann is that candidate. Herman Cain, who has a reputation for wielding a silver tongue, is tripping over it at the moment. Newt Gingrich has been decisively in favor of American Idol and decisively against Nazis, but not much else. And where did Rick Santorum
: Social conservatives don't get a lot of attention from the MSM these days. But they still matter a lot in Iowa -- and Pawlenty just gave them something to smile about. Don't forget that he's an evangelical. He hasn't ever been great at talking about it, but he sounds like he's getting a little better at it.
: Settling scores? Hmm, was Gingrich's definitive, no-hesitation answer on the pop culture question (which does he prefer: Dancing With the Stars or American Idol?) a diss to his former colleague, Tom DeLay
? The former Texas congressman, a contestant on DWTS last year, was part of Gingrich's leadership team and then a participant in an attempted coup against him.
: Rep. Michele Bachmann
, R-Minn., seemed to rattle the rest of the participants a bit with her unexpected announcement she's officially in. But she's done a good job of weaving in her varied experience -- as one of two current members of Congress in the field (along with Rep. Ron Paul
, R-Texas, an attorney and a foster mother -- and grabbing the job of revving up the field absent someone like Palin. The person who seems to suffer the most from Bachmann's presence -- Herman Cain
. He got a great deal of attention at the SC debate, but he's a non-factor so far, left behind as the field has grown.
: The economy is the GOP running mate. The first debate of the Republican nomination fight made clear that whoever rises to the top of the ticket will be counting on high unemployment to win the general election. Joblessness is Obama's toughest rival. Newt Gingrich
set the tone at the top by referring to the "Obama Depression." Said Romney of Obama, "He didn't create the recession. He made it worse and longer."
: Own it, part II. So far, Mitt Romney
's the one standing by his record. He stood up for Commonwealth Care, and he even embraced his Detroit bankruptcy op-ed. Everyone knows Romney's the target, but no one has taken aim yet.
Own it, T-Paw. It's an age-old rule of political debating: Once you attack an opponent, don't back off. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty
violated the rule Monday night by refusing to label health care reform "Obamneycare," as he had in advance of the debate to link rival Mitt Romney to President Barack Obama
on health care reform. Pundits will question Pawlenty's stomach for a fight. Voters may wonder about the character of a candidate who runs down a rival behind his back.