The first Republican debate has finished, and the analysis and spin will begin in earnest. I'm sure that by morning, my e-mail will be filled with messages insisting on promoting one candidate over another, but I already have a few conclusions to share with CQ readers and to inspire debate in this comment thread.
* Who won? -- Mitt Romney won this debate. He looked relaxed, answered clearly, showed real warmth and a sense of humor, and actually answered the questions asked of him -- even the stupid ones, to which I'll return shortly. After Romney, one has to think that Jim Gilmore and Mike Huckabee may have made some strides in breaking out of the third tier. They also showed that they could connect emotionally to the audience and give clear, thoughtful answers.
* Who lost? -- Not everyone who didn't win lost, but a couple of candidates obviously lost this debate. Tommy Thompson, who already had problems with comments made to a Jewish audience, said he thought it was OK for people to get fired just for being homosexual. Whats worse, he looked like a deer in the headlights when Chris Matthews first asked the question. He mumbled, stumbled, and vacillated his way through this debate.
Ron Paul also showed that he should depart the race as quickly as possible. He gave one-note answers about federalism and the original intent of the founders for every question asked of him. He looked outraged all night long, but he put the rest of us to sleep.
* Who marked time? -- John McCain and Rudy Giuliani didn't gain ground but didn't do much damage to themselves, either. McCain started off angry, loud, and aggressive in an obviously deliberate manner, as if he had practiced his Mike Gravel imitation before the debate. He also supported federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, one of only two to do so, and pretty much wrote off the conservative base when he did so. Giuliani stumbled pretty badly on abortion, but he was also the only candidate -- the only candidate -- who offered a defense of George Bush on the war. Everyone else threw him under the bus, especially John McCain.
* How did MS-NBC and Politico perform? -- Poorly. The format guaranteed that we would learn next to nothing about these candidates. The Politico editor kept strolling all over the stage, asking questions from their on-line audience that were embarrassingly inane. Matthews' questions were better, but phrased in a manner that (a) seemed hostile, and (b) didn't allow for thoughtful answers. The better candidates simply worked their way around the questions, while the others looked lost.
* What about Fred? -- Fred helped himself tremendously by staying out of this debate. His absence will make GOP hearts grow much fonder, much faster. At this rate, if Fred stays out of these debates until the primary season begins, he might be the consensus nominee.
* Who's out first? -- The Heading Right folks say Ron Paul, but I think it's Tommy Thompson. He had a disastrous night, while no one expected any more from Paul than we got tonight.