Let's be clear: Monday night's Republican presidential debate will soon be forgotten. There will be countless other forums between now and the start of the primary and caucus season, and nothing that was said by any of the seven candidates who participated (Jon Huntsman was the only credible candidate not to show up) will end up mattering when actual voters cast actual ballots early next year.
That said, there was still value in the two-hour, made-for-television event: It provided some hints about which candidates are most -- and least -- likely to distinguish themselves in the months ahead. In this sense, two of them seemed to have particularly good nights: Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann.
To understand why, it's important to see the GOP race as two separate, simultaneous contests.
One tier consists of candidates who have the potential to win significant support from the party's elites -- the elected officials, fundraisers, activists, interest group leaders and opinion-shaping commentators who are able to influence mass Republican opinion. These candidates have weighty résumés and generally solid ideological credentials and don't hold any views that are deal-breakers with significant chunks of the GOP coalitions. They are also "safe" enough not to arouse fears that nominating them would cost the party any of its built-in November support. They are, in other words, the candidates with the best chances of emerging as the nominee next year. Romney and Tim Pawlenty are in this tier. Rick Perry will be too if he runs, and Huntsman might be as well.
The other tier consists of everyone else. These are the candidates who are extremely unlikely to win meaningful elite support -- maybe because their credentials are weak, or because their ideologies are too narrow, or because they're seen as too polarizing for a general election, or some combination of these factors. These candidates must rely on generating enough excitement from grass-roots voters and activists, since the elites will be doing little or no heavy lifting for them.
Of the first-tier candidates, Romney had the better night on Monday. There was considerable speculation that some (or all) of his rivals would use the forum to attack him over what is supposedly his biggest policy vulnerability: his support for a state-level version of "ObamaCare" in Massachusetts. But watching the debate, you never would have known it's an issue. Like every other candidate onstage, Romney enthusiastically tore into President Obama's healthcare law, castigating it as a massive "power grab" by the federal government that raises taxes, raids Medicare and could bankrupt the country. The Massachusetts law he signed, Romney insisted, is nothing like this.
Most of what he was saying made little sense, but that's not the point. The point is that Romney delivered one smooth, superficially compelling healthcare talking point after another -- and every one of them went unchallenged by his opponents. This is significant, because his healthcare position doesn't actually need to be that coherent for him to win the nomination. The vehemence of the GOP's opposition to ObamaCare, after all, isn't really rooted in logic; it's rooted in blind, reflexive opposition to anything with Obama's fingerprints on it. In that sense, Romney's performance Monday night gave Republican elites something they can use if they want to promote his candidacy -- a way to tell rank-and-file GOP voters not to worry about everything they've heard about his Massachusetts law. All you need to know, the elites can tell the masses, is that what Romney did is different than what Obama did -- and that he hates ObamaCare just as much as you.
And why might elites want to help Romney like this?
One reason could be found in Pawlenty's flat performance Monday night. The former Minnesota governor has been trying hard to become the elite-approved alternative to Romney, but he's struggled to gain traction -- even though on paper he makes perfect sense. He showed why on Monday, when the moderator -- CNN's John King -- dared Pawlenty to attack "RomneyCare" to Romney's face. Pawlenty stumbled around before dodging the challenge and filibustering. When he finished, King went to Romney, who forcefully reeled off a few more meaningless but compelling attacks on Obama's reform efforts. It was only one debate, but Romney was much more up to the challenge than Pawlenty.
And then there's Bachmann, who had the best night of the five second-tier candidates onstage. She started the evening by making news, announcing in response to King's first question that she had formally filed paperwork to run. Then, on topic after topic, she delivered glib, confident, easy-to-digest responses perfectly calibrated for conservative true believers. "Make no mistake about it," in a line that received loud applause early on, "President Obama is a one-term president." On abortion, she insisted that "I stand for life, from conception to natural death." On gay marriage, she noted that she believes so deeply in the ideal of traditional marriage that she and her husband have raised more than 20 foster children. And on government spending, she lamented that "every time the liberals get into office, they pass an omnibus bill of big spending projects. What we need to do is pass the mother of all repeal bills."
Last month, when a smaller group of candidates gathered for a debate in South Carolina, Herman Cain was the undisputed victor among the tier-two candidates. Since then, he's received significant news media coverage and has surged to double digits in some national polls -- even finishing second in one recent Iowa survey. With Bachmann onstage with him tonight, though, Cain seemed to fade out of the picture. Her performance was much stronger and more focused, and it's not hard to imagine her receiving a bounce of her own in the weeks ahead.
It's also not hard to imagine her bounce enduring, given the polish she showed Monday night. Enough to win the nomination? Almost certainly not. But enough to become a serious threat in Iowa and -- potentially -- end up in a one-on-one race with Romney or Pawlenty? Sure. Of course, if Bachmann were to get that one-on-one race after Iowa, she'd probably suffer the same fate that Pat Buchanan did after he won New Hampshire in 1996 and found himself in a one-on-one contest with Bob Dole; at that point, GOP elites flocked to Dole in terror and helped him win virtually all of the remaining contests.
But that kind of scenario is a long way off. For now, Bachmann is just one of a handful of candidates trying to stir passion among the grass roots. And she did a good job of it on Monday night.