Watching the N.H. Republican Presidential Primary Debate


10:17 p.m. Final thoughts: Michele Bachmann was impressive in her first presidential primary debate, giving an assured performance and making sure to layer her answers with personal and professional introductory details. Mitt Romney didn't hurt himself, which about as good a job as a front-runner can do in a debate of this sort. Tim Pawlenty did hurt himself by failing to defend what had seemed strong criticisms of Romney. Herman Cain's inexperience and idiosyncratic positions started to show tonight; while he was the break-out star at the South Carolina debate, his performance tonight suggests he may not wear well over the months head. Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich appeared more talking heads than candidates, and unlikely to stretch easily into new roles. That gives the wins of the evening to Romney and Bachmann.

10 p.m. The last five minutes are a love fest. The field thinks very well of itself, and the candidates of each other. Kind of a nice touch, and one that's sure to vanish if and when the contest really heats up.

9:56 p.m. Palin or Biden? Pawlenty goes with Palin, criticizes Biden for having wanted to partition Iraq.

9:53 p.m. Not trending, but fun: #thisorthat.

9:46 p.m. Michele Bachmann is gaining stature just by being on the stage tonight. Very tough on Obama for decision to go into Libya.

9:44 p.m. #cnndebate is the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter worldwide right now.

9:42 p.m. Is it time for us to leave Afghanistan? Romney, "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we can," based on the conditions on the ground as determined by the generals. Ron Paul: As commander in chief, I'd tell the generals what to do, not wait for them to tell me what to do.

9:38 p.m. Coke or Pepsi? Pawlenty, "Coke."

9:34 p.m. Newt Gingrich defends nuance in the immigration debate, a middle ground between kicking 20 million people out and not protecting America's borders.

9:26 p.m. "Not only have I taken the pledge, I've taken the bullets..." Rick Santorum lays out his anti-abortion position. Kathryn Jean Lopez points out this is not the first time he's used that formulation in recent weeks.

9:25 p.m. Bachmann says she's opposed to same sex marriage, but doesn't see it as the role of the president to go into states and tell them how to legislate. She also gave a heartfelt answer about the problem of difficult homes, her own imperfect home, and why she was a foster parent. I think this is what's going to make her so interesting in the months ahead: She's a 1970s-generation conservative, a conservative by choice in response to the excesses of that historical moment, even though she's only emerged nationally during the tea party era.

9:17 p.m. Spicy or mild? Romney, surprisingly, says spicy.

9:14 p.m. Romney and Pawlenty are really playing a different game than everyone else on stage, and I'm not sure it's good for them to be so surrounded by the more vehement partisans. Yes, it makes them look reasonable. But it also makes them look, well, pained.

9:09 p.m. Cain defends his lack of comfort with the idea of appointing Muslims to a hypothetical Cain administration, then quickly pivots to attack sharia law. Nice split screen on CNN as Romney gives Cain a very skeptical look as the pizza magnate defends asking Muslims extra questions before hiring them. "Of course we are not going to have sharia law," says Romney taking the question as well, and emphasizing that anyone hired in his administration would be someone he knew. Gingrich says he'd back a loyalty oath for government service, as was done in the Nazi and, controversially, communist eras.

9:02 p.m. A question from the audience: Do you support raising the debt ceiling? Romney: We won't raise the debt ceiling unless Obama lays out plans for reining in government excesses, and spending. And if we don't raise it? Romney doesn't answer. Or rather, he answers with another question -- what if we keep spending?

9 p.m. Cain supports the Ryan plan wholeheartedly. Gingrich says his statements on the Ryan plan were taken out of context.

8:56 p.m. Pawlenty addresses the questioner with a promise to keep faith with promises made to him on Medicare, a serious and personal response that really serves as a reminder how few candidates on the stage are actually acting like politicians campaigning for an office, as opposed to politicians arguing with each other on TV.

8:54 p.m. And here we go with Medicare. "It's not can't be made solvent, it has to change," says Ron Paul in response to a question about how he'll keep the program strong. "You talk about opting out of Obamacare? Why can't we opt out of the whole system?" he asks.

8:53 p.m. BackBerry or iPhone? Ron Paul goes with the BB.

8:51 p.m. Gingrich has the first strong preference on a this or that question/ Dancing with the Stars or American Idol? "American Idol," he says, without missing a beat.

8:49 p.m. This debate is feeling a little ADHD, zipping along so quickly from topic to topic and candidate to candidate it's hard to get a sense of them all on key questions. But good for CNN for at least trying to shake up the format.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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