Who won last night's Republican presidential debate on CNN?
It's a question a lot of pundits have been asking -- and there seems to be some consensus forming among the analysts: Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
But judging by the reaction of the audience in New Hampshire, a different candidate carried the night and he's a candidate many analysts are saying emerged as a loser.
That candidate? Congressman Ron Paul of Texas.
An analysis of audience reaction shows Paul was applauded twice as much as any other candidate on stage.
Throughout the two-hour debate, Paul was applauded 11 times. Romney, Bachmann, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty were each applauded five times. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and businessman Herman Cain were each applauded four times. Former Pa. Senator Rick Santorum was applauded the least amount of times: Three.
After a slow start, Paul earned applause throughout the debate, on a variety of issues, including his opposition to "government assistance to private enterprise," his belief that people should be able to "opt out" of Medicare, his views on the separation of church and state, and his opposition to the United States' various wars.
"I'd bring them home as quickly as possible," he said of U.S. troops. "And I would get them out of Iraq as well. And I wouldn’t start a war in Libya. I’d quit bombing Yemen. And I’d quit bombing Pakistan. I’d start taking care of people here at home because we could save hundreds of billions of dollars."
Romney scored with the audience for his opposition of "too big too fail" economic policies, for his comments about scaling down the war in Afghanistan and for his attacks on Obama. Bachmann earned applause when she announced her candidacy for president and when she called Obama "a one-term president." Pawlenty scored applause with his comments about right-to-work legislation and when he praised the Christian faith. Cain was cheered for his comments regarding government bailouts, his statement regarding the strength of the GOP field and his opposition to Sharia law. Gingrich also pleased the crowd on this issue and for his comments on securing the border.
In terms of other audience reaction, Romney earned the most laughs: Twice his comments brought the crowd to laughter (though one was a slip-up about the Taliban). Paul, Santorum, Gingrich, and Pawlenty each earned laughter from the crowd on one occasion.
I thought each candidate had his moments. Gingrich gave the best intro; Cain overall was the best orator; Santorum was the most combative on the president's economic policies; Romney was the most presidential; Paul the most principled; Bachmann perhaps the most exciting; and Pawlenty perhaps the nicest (he refused to criticize Romney to his face). Even Santorum showed he can have a sense of humor.
What's strange, though, is how uniformly pundits' opinions have been in favor of Romney and Bachmann -- and how different their reaction is to that of the audience in New Hampshire. (A poll of so-called "GOP Insiders" revealed party establishment minds believe Paul finished last. View that poll here.)
Now, I realize Paul's supporters tend to be louder and more enthusiastic than other candidates' and the amount of applause is hardly a scientific way to judge a debate. But to not even consider as a potential debate winner the person who was applauded more than twice as much as any other candidate strikes me as strange.
Maybe it shows a vast separation between the media and the beliefs of grassroots GOP activists? Maybe it shows that Paul's supporters are simply more enthusiastic, though not larger in number? I don't know.
What I do know is this: People don't cheer things they don't support. They don't laugh at jokes that aren't funny. They don't cry during movies that aren't sad.
Paul's large advantage in applause shows that a number of Republicans want smaller government, less foreign wars, no financial bailouts and freedom in their personal lives. He may not be the favorite in the GOP race, but the pundits could at least acknowledge the vocal and growing support within the Republican party on these issues.