The most obvious thing to say about Monday night’s debate is that it was better than almost all the previous ones, in part because there were fewer participants. We’ll get one more five-person debate on Thursday, then Rick Perry will most likely withdraw after Saturday’s primary—so we'll have four-person debates on January 23 and January 26 in Florida, which should allow for even more direct exchanges and contrasts, and for more information about the candidates’ views and skills.
In other words, the “system” has worked. The field will have been winnowed down to four after the first three contests, which is a pretty good rate of winnowing. I for one hope there's no rush to the exits after that. Conservatives may wish for clarity between Santorum and Gingrich, and I personally suspect Santorum may ultimately prove the more viable alternative. But with proportional allocation during February and March, there’s no need for conservatives to press either Santorum or Gingrich to get out. What conservatives need to do is trust the voters in later states not to be stampeded like sheep if Romney does often win a plurality while conservatives split the rest of the vote. If Romney does end up winning increasing pluralities and then majorities—then he’ll deserve the nomination, having won it fair and square. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, it seems to me much healthier for the GOP that the race and the debates go on, than to have a premature coronation of one candidate.
Perhaps, by the time Mitt Romney releases his income tax returns in April, one candidate will have sewed up the nomination. Or perhaps not. As Romney said tonight, “time will tell.”