With the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses just 24 days away, the GOP debate this evening was billed by ABC News' Diane Sawyer as "closing arguments." Instead, it may be known as the debate of the $10,000 bet, that is the offer that Mitt Romney made with Rick Perry, the latter still claiming that Romney endorsed a national healthcare mandate in his book. There are still more debates to go until the voting begins, so this is hardly the final word, and hard as it is to fathom, the full brunt of the candidates' advertisements has yet to come.
Here's who benefitted:
Newt Gingrich: He once again gave history lessons, was certain and a bit smug and threw a few zingers at Mitt Romney --- pretty much the ingredients that helped him rise again in the GOP field as the current anti-Mitt. Most of all, he wasn't all that defensive. He backed up his phrase that Palestinians are an "invented people" by equating it with Ronald Reagan's characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." That in and of itself may strike many as an outrageous comment, but Gingrich's vow to "tell the truth" in a foreign policy field beset with nuance seemed to play well in the room, and perhaps with the Iowa GOP electorate.
Michele Bachmann: Her statement "Newt Romney" kept her from being an afterthought, by virtue of having her not-Mitt star fade. It may help define the two front runners as hardly the consistent conservatives she is trying to make them out to be.
Ron Paul: He still generates the most applause among his faithful band of followers. Even Mitt Romney acknowledges that Paul has the enthusiasm, when he cited the fact that it's the Paulites are the ones outside in the cold brandishing campaign signs. If he places well in Iowa, will the media continue to ignore him?
Al Gore: His Current TV offered post-debate analysis --- including from Gore himself. It may not move he needle much for the network, but at least it shows that it has a direction as a more liberal alternative to MSNBC that is, at last, current.
Here's who didn't:
Mitt Romney: The $10,000 bet was very quickly pounced on by the Democratic National Committee, ready and waiting to characterize Romney as indicative of the 1%. He survived the most difficult question of the night --- where has he experienced hardship this recession --- by just saying that he has always been well-to-do, yet also getting in that frugality has been part of his character.
Rick Perry: He missed out on what would have been a great response: I don't have $10,000 to give. Instead, his campaign appears focused not on an economic message, which was to have been his main campaign theme, and instead a more traditional family values message to try to peel off the state's social conservatives. It probably didn't help that Fred Thompson --- the last cycle's big flame out --- appeared during the debate, as the pitchman in a commercial for reverse mortgages.
Diane Sawyer: Where were the follow up questions? What ABC News did do is introduce instant replays, and perhaps future debates will go a step further.:Clips of candidates' previous statements --- healthcare mandates, cap and trade, etc. --- giving the actual evidence with which they will be forced to respond.