Did anyone miss Snow White?

Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul at the first New Hampshire debate of the 2012 campaign Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mitt Romney (centre) looked and sounded like a frontrunner

It is no comment on their political stature, but the would-be presidents did at times seem like the seven dwarves, diminished by CNN's gigantic blue and red video screen of a set, words larger than the candidates whizzing around behind their heads.

For my money the frontrunner in the polls, Mitt Romney, actually looked and sounded like a frontrunner, ahead of the rest of this pack. To put it bluntly, he won. Michele Bachmann gets second place, for rather cheesily announcing she was running live on air and not sounding far out.

In this first debate the gloves were kept firmly on. In a rather schmaltzy last five minutes they all said they thought the questions were great, the American people were great, they were all great, and any one of them would be a better president than Barack Obama.

Differences were largely nuanced, as they all spoke up in favour of lower taxation, keeping government out of the economy, and all agreed that President Obama had made a fearful mess of things.

The one real memorable moment was when Tim Pawlenty showed an embarrassing lack of spine (or if you are really old-fashioned, an admirable degree of politeness).

Earlier he had linked Mitt Romney's healthcare reform with President Obama's changes by calling them "Obamneycare".

Remember this is the strongest conservative charge against Mitt Romney. Challenged to repeat this, with Mr Romney standing next to him, he rather weakly said he was just repeating what the president had said, that both schemes were similar.

It made you think if he can't be rude in a debate, could he say boo to anyone from President Obama to the Taliban.

It gave Mr Romney his chance for his best answer of the evening, saying that if the president had bothered to call him he would have given him some advice on what had gone wrong.

What else did we learn? Social issues like abortion and gay marriage were given short shrift. They said what you'd expect them to say, and Mr Pawlenty made a play as the most anti-abortion candidate, but they didn't try to attack each other or make a big meal of any of it.

Likewise foreign affairs. Afghanistan and Libya were saved up for the last 15 minutes and no-one sounded in the slightest gung-ho. So, as things stand, if we didn't know it already, this is going to be all about the economy.

How did they do?

Michele Bachmann will have raised her profile. She mentioned being in the room when important decisions were taken too often, and the 23 children she has adopted way too often.

For my money there were too many pre-prepared lines, and pauses for applause, as well, but she has shown she can hack it. The left accuse her of being wacky, but she didn't sound it.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Has Michele Bachmann stolen Sarah Palin's niche?

Ron Paul: Crusty, consistent, passionate and articulate. Eminently trustworthy. But the trouble is when he talks about less government it isn't just code for fewer regulations and lower tax - he means it when it comes to gay marriage and the military as well. And that is too radical for many Republicans.

Newt Gingrich: He somehow got away without being asked about his staff resigning and his campaign exploding, but he looked pained throughout. A few good lines but he didn't punch through.

Tim Pawlenty: Despite his embarrassment with Mr Romney, his attacks on President Obama were the strongest, with a few nice sound bites. But he did himself damage early on.

Rick Santorum: He seemed very keen on agreeing with everybody else. No flavour of distinction came through at all.

Herman Cain: The pizza chain businessman just about kept his head above water. But one weird answer left me feeling he won't go much further. He defended his remark that he wouldn't feel comfortable with a Muslim in his administration, because he would think of "the ones who want to kill us".

And did anyone miss Snow White, by whom I mean Sarah Palin? Well, I did.

I would like to have seen whether her star power dazzled and dwarfed the rest of the field, or whether she would have been eaten alive.

But I rather feel Ms Bachmann has nicked the niche for a strong conservative woman of principle.

More on this story