The race for the Republican presidential nomination definitively turned into a two-person race between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry after a NBC News and Politico sponsored debate at Ronald Reagan's presidential library.
The debate featuring eight presidential hopefuls ranged from discussions on Social Security to immigration reform to Obama's healthcare mandates. The debate actually featured stimulating conversations, but most importantly solidified the contenders from the pretenders in the race.
Here are the night's winners and losers:
Romney took some hits over his health care mandate as governor of Massachusetts, but otherwise flourished during the debate. He was confident and willing to take some strong stances, but also looked the most presidential at the end of the debate.
One of Romney's most impressive answers came on the topic of Social Security. Romney hit at the conservative side of things by acknowledging that the system needed major fixing, but went out of his way to point out that it's working for more than 10 million Americans.
He had to mention that the system isn't perfect less he upset the most conservative of Republicans, but he did a good job at appealing to older Americans that currently rely on the money for sustenance. That answer could play very well with seniors in Florida, which will likely be a very important state for determining a true frontrunner in the nomination process.
Romney might not have the charisma of Perry, but he proved on Wednesday he might be more politically savvy. Former John McCain strategist Steve Schmidt called him the most dangerous Republican candidate for President Obama on MSNBC and he could be right based on this debate.
Perry came into the debate as a favorite and leaves as a favorite -- a major win in any debate scenario. Perry continued to show off charisma and strong viewpoints, but also had his share of missteps in his first presidential debate.
One of the biggest issues that will be raised was Perry's insistence on calling Social Seucirty a Ponzi Scheme. That kind of statement will appeal to the most ardent of Tea Partiers, but Romney quickly called him out for using too much controversial language. This is a comment that could be a bit too toxic to appeal to more moderate Republicans.
Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight made a particularly astute sport analogy about Perry in comparing him to former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. Silver noted that similar to Favre, Perry throws a lot of touchdowns, but also a lot of interceptions.
The best news for Perry is that it's clear that his early momentum is for real and this race has turned into a battle against Romney for the nomination. This debate helped cement him as the anti-establishment candidate for both good and bad reasons. The two key issues to watch going forward from this debate is the nation's reaction to his Social Security comments and his mandate for 12-year old girls to get HPV vaccinations -- a measure that Ron Paul strongly disliked.
Done. Fini. Kaput.
That's how you can describe Bachmann's chances of winning the Republican nomination after the debate. Bachmann saw her momentum slow to a crawl after Tea Party favorite Rick Perry joined the race and that will only get worse after Wednesday night. She came into the debate with a lot of pressure to perform after two of her top campaign aides quit her campaign, but she failed to assuage doubts about her chances.
It's clear based on tonight's debate that this is a two-person race between Romney and Perry -- with Bachmann on the outside with little chance of getting back into things. She initially had the edge as the new, interesting -- albeit slightly controversial -- candidate but lost that moniker once Rick Perry and his cowboy boots jumped into the fray.
It was clear based on simply the line of questioning by moderators Brian Williams and John Harris that Bachmann isn't as relevant as she once was. At this point the only nomination chance that is likely for Bachmann is if someone taps her as the second half of their party ticket.
I love Rick Perry! I love Mitt Romney! But I'm pretty good too!!
That was the general consensus of Huntsman's comments over the course of the night. The former Utah governor took multiple opportunities to say how much he admired the two former governors, but also to try to one-up them on specific issues.
Huntsman has admirably cornered the civility candidate market, but it just doesn't seem to be gaining much traction within the Republican Party. This debate showed yet again that Huntsman isn't as right wing or appealing to Tea Party supporters like Perry, nor does he have the established name recognition like Romney.
Huntsman will likely keep trucking along, but he's essentially irrelevant at this point.
Gingrich continued his crusade against the media for trying to turn Republicans against each other, but to much less applause and laughter than he got in the first debate. It's clear that the former Speaker of the House is trying to own each debate's best zinger - and he might have succeeded in doing so in the first debate - but certainly fell flat on Wednesday.
Gingrich continues to linger around because frankly what better does he have to do, but it looks like Gingrich is angling more for a television contract than a spot in the White House.
Rest of Field
The remaining candidates of Ron Paul, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum didn't do anything on Wednesday to make them anything more than fringe candidates, but will maintain their niche followings.
Ron Paul continues to be the most entertaining candidate in the field, but still has no real shot to win the party's nomination. He's funny and smart, but too old and stubborn to ever win a general election. Paul is to be admired for his consistency in his views, but calling for no funding for FEMA after one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit the East Coast, isn't exactly going to win a lot of new supporters.
You know exactly what you are going to get with Rick Santorum -- a lot of complaining and a few good ideas. Santorum lamented that he was being ignored at a debate again -- and frankly he was right -- but that's unlikely to change anytime soon. He is working hard on the trail, but it's not paying off.
Herman Cain was the only candidate to bring up Chile as an example of how Social Security could be modified and for that he deserves kudos. Cain continued to show some business acumen in the debate, but his 999 mentions got a bit tiresome. If you liked Cain going in then it's doubtful anything changed, but it's doubtful he gained many new supporters.