The thing to watch going into last night's debate was Tim Pawlenty's performance because the Minnesota governor was the only one of the five candidates participating with a good chance of winning the Republican nomination. He didn't exactly blow anyone away, but he did get in an adequate number of jabs at Obama on national health care, unions, and the economy. He successfully delivered a mea culpa that sounded honest for once supporting cap and trade, as many GOP candidates did in the past.
Moreover, he kept himself from spouting any of the awkward rhetoric that bubbles up when he tries to sound too folksy or tough. In all, the free air time and practice probably marginally helped Pawlenty. But it was more of a scrimmage than even an exhibition game for Pawlenty. Ron Paul and Gary Johnson kept things interesting with their libertarian positions on issues such as heroin and gay marriage. Rick Santorum got to stake out his position as the leading social conservative--the Sam Brownback of 2012. And Herman Cain boosted his visibility and won Frank Luntz's focus group. But the absence of Romney and Gingrich, as well as potential candidates Huckabee, Palin, and/or Bachmann, left Pawlenty without serious competition. Although the debaters and questioners were going full speed, no one was really keeping score. The Republican presidential campaign has not yet begun.