Tim Pawlenty was debate night’s big loser. He walked onto that stage with one mission: to prove himself the ultra-base alternative to Romney. He failed, miserably.
Pawlenty’s failure is not the kind of stumble he can correct later. It goes to the core of the guy: offered the chance to confront Romney directly, he flinched. He did not look “nice.” He did not look like he was observing the 11th commandment. He looked uncertain and weak. He looked like a man fully aware that Romney would best him in a one-to-one discussion of healthcare policy.
Meanwhile, as Noah Kristula-Green writes, Bachmann had a very good night. She overshadowed Pawlenty, the disoriented Gingrich, crazy grandpa Ron Paul, and the absent Palin. (Question: will Bachmann’s rise ignite Palin’s mean-girl jealous streak, and impel her late into the race?)
After last night, Pawlenty’s fund-raising will sputter. He’s not exciting enough for ultra-base small donors. He does not look enough like a winner to mobilize big-dollar donors.
The cratering of Pawlenty opens an alternative space on Romney’s right. Gingrich is too damaged to seize it. Will Rick Perry try? Will Paul Ryan?
If not, I’d guess the future course of the race goes like this:
Bachmann wins Iowa. Romney wins New Hampshire. Absent Perry or Ryan, the field quickly empties out. The establishment rallies to Romney. The party follows just as it did in 1988, 1996 and 2000.
Meanwhile talk radio and Fox News goes angrier and uglier than ever. Despite Hugh Hewitt’s assurances conservative talkers won’t easily rally to Romney. They’ll be compelled instead to focus on the danger and evil of Obama. Romney’s challenge — and only hope — will be to rise above