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GOP debate: 10 burning questions answered

The first significant GOP presidential debate is in the books and there seems to be near consensus about who came off well (Michele Bachmann) and who didn’t (Tim Pawlenty). On Monday, we posed 10 questions that we hoped the debate would answer. For the most part, they were. Here’s a look at the results:

1.       Can Mitt Romney explain away Romneycare?

In perhaps the debate’s biggest surprise, Romney didn’t really have to. If this debate is remembered at all, it will be the Sergio Leone-tinged episode when Tim Pawlenty was directly challenged to slam Romney using the sobriquet “Obamneycare” and backed down. All that was missing was the close-up on Pawlenty’s nervous eyes.

Romney then offered his now-standard response that the plan worked for his state and not for America--and essentially got a free pass from then on.

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Romney’s association with the Democratic healthcare bill will come up again--and again--but a large opportunity was missed clean.

Photos: Potential 2012 GOP candidates

2.       Can Tim Pawlenty quicken anyone’s pulse?

Well, he did, but not in the way the former Minnesota governor wanted. You could make the argument that no one came out worse Monday night than the man they call “T-Paw.” On Twitter, comparisons were made to LeBron James wilting in the NBA Finals, for heaven’s sake.

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The bottom line: Pawlenty was given a chance to dent his biggest rival and at the same time define himself as a fierce competitor in the process. To borrow language from the just-completed playoffs, it was an Alpha Dog moment.

Pawlenty seemed off his game the entire night. After Romney pandered to the crowd by announcing the score of the Stanley Cup game, Pawlenty tried the same tactic later. Romney, a New Englander, could only barely get away with something so shameless; Pawlenty, a hockey fan, had no such luck.

Can he recover? Of course. It’s early. But Pawlenty, who has had difficulty finding traction in national polls, has been counting on the goodwill of advocates inside the Beltway and elsewhere to help propel his campaign. If some of those backers start jumping ship, then the climb grows that much steeper.

3.       Can Michele Bachmann appear presidential?

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Bachmann surprised everyone by suddenly declaring her candidacy for the White House in the early minutes of the debate, but in retrospect, it looks like a canny move. In an evening that offered little in terms of drama, Bachmann’s largely symbolic announcement became major news.

The Minnesota congresswoman’s performance overall came as no surprise to those who have seen her win over crowds at conservative events. And while she still came off as perhaps less than polished at times, her energy compensated. Most critically, she displayed an ability to weave personal narrative (raised in a broken home, mother to foster kids) with policy pronouncements (unapologetically anti-abortion). And although she has been in the House of Representatives for only four years, she telegraphed her experience like a veteran, particularly in answering a question about the Libyan conflict.

Fair or not, Bachmann, almost overnight, will now be viewed as a serious threat to win the Iowa caucuses. Her profile is blossoming--and at this stage of the game, buzz might be the single best currency to have.

4.        Can Newt Gingrich rise from the dead?

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Well, he was there. The former House speaker, reeling from the defection of key aides, pressed onward. Gingrich was in full Professor Newt mode, at one point interrupting Pawlenty and browbeating/lecturing moderator John King about his position on the space program. Gingrich is a smart man who can’t help notifying everyone in the room of that fact--something that in a debate format can come off as pedantic.

Gingrich again tried to explain away his criticism of the Paul Ryan Medicare plan and the result was yet another iteration of the now-infamous “Meet the Press” interview, one where Gingrich now says he was quoted “out of context.” (That produced eye rolls.) Yet almost in the same breath, he repeated his original assertion that House leaders had been reckless in moving forward with the Ryan plan as fast as it did, a fair point that runs counter to the current GOP orthodoxy.

If Gingrich has a track to hew in the race as it moves forward, it may well be finding the courage to be the candidate in the room who breaks with an establishment that, for all intents and purposes, has abandoned him already.

5.       Can Ron Paul look like anything more than a fringe candidate?

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If there is a word to describe the Texas libertarian Monday night, it was, well, cranky. Paul had a cantankerous answer for almost every question put to him, from America’s military involvement overseas (he’s against it) to the government’s role in certifying legal marriage (he’s against it).

Paul was who he is. He isn’t going to change. And he showed yet again that he isn’t going to varnish his brand of truth-telling in a bid to chase supporters. If he is to perform well in primaries, the voters will have to come to him, not the other way around.

6.       CanRick Santorum get noticed?

The ex-Pennsylvania senator largely avoided employing his brand of razor-wired rhetoric--except for contending that the president has “turned his back on American allies and he has embraced our enemies"--in favor of a warmer approach built around conservative values and national exceptionalism. But at the end of the day, it didn’t seem to make much difference. And the boyish-looking Santorum came off as edgy, as less than relaxed, particularly when moderator King asked him whether he preferred Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien. “I don’t watch either,” he stammered.

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Like Pawlenty, he was offered a chance to slam Romney and punted. King brought up a treasured Santorum subject, abortion, and asked whether Romney had flip-flopped on the subject. Santorum offered a discursive on a candidate’s “authenticity” but avoided invoking Romney directly.

7.       Is Hermanentum for real?

Those expecting an electrifying performance from the former conservative talk-radio host came away disappointed. Herman Cain looked ill at ease and unprepared and--as often is the case with fringe candidates--came off as smaller than the event. At times he seemed out of his element, particularly when asked about foreign affairs, mixing homespun wisdom with fact-based assertions in a manner that came out, at times, incoherent.

Asked about the U.S. role in Libya, for example, Cain responded: “If it’s not in the vital interest of America, to paraphrase my grandmother, with the situation in Libya and many of these other situations, they’re not simple situations. It’s a mess. It’s just an absolute mess.”

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Should Bachmann surge in conservative circles, one big loser could be the ex-Godfather’s Pizza chief executive’s outsider candidacy.

8.       Will Jon Huntsman see an opening?

The former Utah governor’s camp could have viewed the evening two different ways: Either the debate illustrated just how difficult it will be for any candidate to displace the polished Romney as the front-runner, or it uncovered a space, perhaps somewhere in between Romney and Bachmann, where a new face could alter the dynamic.

Here’s suggesting that they’ll see it as the latter--and that if Huntsman had any doubts about getting in before Monday, many of them were erased.

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9.       Will anyone else?

See previous question. Are Rick Perry’s boots made for running? We may find out soon.

10.     Will Sarah Palin be there in spirit?

The possible candidate was mentioned only once, in a softball question to Pawlenty about whether she made a better vice presidential pick than Joe Biden. Pawlenty had little to lose in praising Palin in that context. But if Palin is considering jumping in the race, Bachmann’s performance Monday will have to give her some pause.

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