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First Thoughts: Last night's winners and losers

Last night’s debate winners: Romney, Bachmann, and the Tea Party… Last night’s losers: Pawlenty, Gingrich, and anyone who wanted a serious, substantive conversation on the economy… Recapping Obama’s economic talk with NBC’s Ann Curry… The president’s day in Puerto Rico… The Biden talks on debt ceiling/deficit restart on Capitol Hill at 2:00 pm ET… Presidential maybe Rick Perry in the spotlight in New York City… And the day after the debate, Romney and Gingrich are in NH, Santorum is in Iowa, and Huntsman (who didn’t participate in the debate) discusses foreign policy with Henry Kissinger in the Big Apple.

*** Last night’s winners and losers: Although last night’s GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire turned out to be standard fare for an early debate -- with no fireworks and no heated exchanges -- we learned some things. One, Michele Bachmann announced she filed her paperwork to run for president (when is the last time that’s happened at a presidential debate? That'll get copied in 2016, mark our words). Two, having previous presidential debating experience like Mitt Romney had certainly helps (though it didn’t end up benefiting John Edwards in ’08 in the long run, just at the very early debates). Three, if you try to pick a fight the day before the debate, as Tim Pawlenty did, you better follow through (or face the post-game consequences). And four, the debate was a contest to prove who was the most anti-Obama, anti-government, and most pro-Tea Party (“Anyone on this stage would be a better president than Obama,” Romney said). Now on to last night’s winners and losers…

*** Practice makes perfect for Romney: The clearest individual winner was Romney. He performed as well as he did at any other debate in 2007-2008, which just goes to prove that practice makes perfect. He was confident and engaged. What’s more, he emerged relatively unscathed -- receiving only fingernail scratches from Rick Santorum (on his authenticity on abortion) and Pawlenty (more on that below). Yet as National Journal’s Reinhard writes, he probably won’t get off as easily in upcoming debates. Perhaps most important for Romney, his message was better tailored to independent voters than the rest of the field (though it was striking that he decided not to criticize Obama’s views on NASA/space, given the industry’s importance in Florida). His most puzzling comment came when he seemed to argue against the Bush Doctrine regarding military involvement in places like Iraq and Afghanistan: "I also think we've learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation -- only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban." Does he believe this about Iraq as well? If so, we didn’t hear that in ’07-’08. Also, Romney ducked answering the debt-ceiling question and no one followed up on it.

*** Bachmann: The most credible anti-Romney candidate? Another winner was Bachmann, who likely will continue to dominate the anti-Obama one-liners and rhetoric throughout the debate season. As soon as she appeared on stage and as soon as she announced that she filed her paperwork to run for president, the Herman Cain Experiment seemed to be over. She stumbled on the gay marriage answer and muddled her facts on a few issues, but her supporters won't care about that. Just from watching last night’s debate, she has the potential to be the most credible anti-Romney in the GOP field, especially considering the order of the contests with Iowa first. Of course, that’s what Team Romney is hoping for. Indeed, last night’s debate played out almost exactly how we saw it playing out last week -- Bachmann dominated the process of the debate and allowed Romney to "win" it.

*** We’re all Tea Partiers now: The other big winner was the Tea Party. Indeed, it sounded like all the candidates -- even Romney -- were reading off the Dick Armey/FreedomWorks/Americans for Prosperity script. So many of last night’s answers were about what the government SHOULDN’T be doing rather than what it SHOULD be doing (other than get out of the way). But that rhetoric raises this question: If the federal government should stay out of the way -- and if the 10th Amendment is so cherished -- why run for president? Why not stay governor of Massachusetts or Minnesota? One person who struggled a tad on the 10th Amendment talking point was Rick Santorum, even though he's fully embraced much of the economic rhetoric. After all, it’s hard to legislate morality as Santorum wants to do when the GOP sounds more and more like the Libertarian Party. And that has to bring a smile to Ron Paul’s face. Bachmann is as much a social conservative as Santorum in her voting record, but notice her consistency on the 10th Amendment when it comes to gay marriage -- a distinction from Santorum. Though, it was notable how she had to fix her answer three times.

*** The biggest loser: Pawlenty: If there was one big loser last night, it was Pawlenty. Coming into the debate, no one raised the prospect of attacking Romney more than he did (with his “ObamneyCare” line). But when Pawlenty got into the batter's box, he didn't even swing; in fact, he struck out looking. After the debate in the spin room, his campaign dismissed that criticism, saying that Pawlenty didn’t give the answer news outlets were hoping he’d give. But there’s one problem with that explanation: It was the Pawlenty campaign that called SO MUCH attention and promotion to the candidate’s dig at Romney before the debate. Either the candidate doesn't agree with his advisers on strategy or the campaign doesn't agree on strategy; either way, that's not a sign of a winning campaign. Seven months from now, Pawlenty could very well end up regretting this missed opportunity. And it underscores the early challenge for Pawlenty: The Minnesota Nice Guy wants to be the tough-talking Tea Party conservative, but he personally just may not be comfortable in that role.

*** Good Newt, Bad Newt: That brings us to Newt Gingrich. Oh, boy. A week after his campaign imploded, the former speaker delivered a very uneven performance, displaying both Good Newt and Bad Newt. Good Newt: his elegant argument on the space program. Bad Newt: his “loyalty oath” rant on Muslims serving in the U.S. government. “I just wanna go out on a limb here,” he said last night. “I am in favor of saying to people, ‘If you're not prepared to be loyal to the United States, you will not serve in my administration, period.’” More: “We did this in dealing with the Nazis, and we did this in dealing with the Communists. And it was controversial both times, and both times we discovered, after a while, there are some genuinely bad people who would like to infiltrate our country, and we have got to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘No’.” Unfortunately for Gingrich, that McCarthy-like line isn’t going to help him after his rough news last week.  

*** The absence of a serious, substantive discussion on the economy: The other big loser of the night was a serious, substantive discussion on the economy. After spending the last few weeks criticizing the Obama administration on this subject, not a single GOP presidential candidate offered a convincing plan on how to create jobs. We heard plenty about lower taxes and less regulation. The problem: Taxes are already at their lowest level since the 1950s, and that hasn’t really jump-started the economy. Moreover, there was little regulation during the Bush administration, and that didn’t produce a wave of jobs between 2001 and 2009.

President Barack Obama and his policies were major topics of discussion at Monday's Republican presidential debate. Among the topics were health care, the economy, gays in the military and Afghanistan. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Obama talks the economy with Ann Curry: Of course, the GOP candidates aren’t the only ones struggling when talking about the economy. Here’s President Obama’s answer to NBC’s Ann Curry about whether he’s empathetic to out-of-work Americans and angry about their plight: ”I wake up every morning thinking about how can I help that man in North Carolina, or that woman in Indiana, or that family in Pennsylvania, get back on their feet… But what is true is that as president, my job is to make sure that I am finding every good idea that we can to move the country forward.” On if he should have spent more time on the economy rather than health care: “I have to tell you, Ann, everything I thought about, over the first two years was how do we get the economy back on track. That's what we focused on then, that's what we focus on now. But health care is part of our challenge. Because if companies are spending billions of dollars on rising health-care costs, that's money that they're not putting into hiring the workers, or new plants, or equipment.” The president's economic case on health care was a tough sell in 2010, probably tougher now.

*** Obama’s day in Puerto Rico: After spending yesterday in North Carolina and Florida, Obama heads today to Puerto Rico. He arrives there at 11:45 am ET, delivers brief remarks minutes later, sits down for local interviews at 2:55 pm, and attends a DNC fundraiser at 3:50 pm. He leaves Puerto Rico at 4:40 pm, and returns the White House later this evening. As we noted yesterday, the Puerto Rico visit is as much --if not more so -- about building good will in Puerto Rican communities on the mainland (particularly in Orlando and Miami) as it is about the issue of statehood or independence or commonwealth for the American island.

*** On Capitol Hill today: The deficit-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden pick up the pace with three meetings on Capitol Hill this week -- the first starting today at 2:00 pm ET, NBC’s Libby Leist reports. Also today, Senate Democrats hold a press conference to spell out their negotiating position on Medicare changes, per a leadership aide. They will outline what they will and won’t accept in the search for Medicare savings. And Leist notes that freshman Sen. Marco Rubio will deliver his “maiden” floor speech today (more on that in our Congress section).

*** Rick Perry in the spotlight: Presidential maybe Rick Perry keynotes the New York County Republican Committee’s Lincoln Day Dinner in New York City. 

*** On the 2012 trail: The day after last night’s GOP debate, Gingrich addressed a small business forum in Concord, NH, earlier this morning… Romney meets with voters in Manchester… Santorum is in Iowa… And Huntsman, who didn’t participate at the debate, holds a foreign-policy discussion with Henry Kissinger in New York City at noon ET.

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 60 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 91 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 147 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 237 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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