The Republican field “flipped the script” Monday night at the CNN/Tea Party debate.

Conventional analysis for the past month has been that the GOP field is a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.  But if a casual viewer (which describes most of America) tuned in to the debate, the reaction had to be, “Wow, check out Newt Gingrich. He’s good.  He must be leading in the polls, right?”

No. No he’s not.  The polls reflect conventional analysis…or conventional analysis reflects the polls (I’m not sure which), with Romney and Perry clearly in the lead. But if last night’s debate is any indication, conventional analysis is looking like “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The winners of last night’s debate, in my mind, were Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Michelle Bachmann.

Gingrich drove the debate with smart, substantive points.  Herman Cain was funny and charming as usual, but is starting to add more substance. And Bachmann brought up one of the most important points of the night with Perry’s Gardasil social-conservative-problem/government-mandate-problem/crony-capitalism-problem. (Bachmann has since jumped the shark, as Meredith posted earlier.)

Perry struggled and stammered on issues from immigration to Texas job growth.  At the end of the night he looked like a punch drunk boxer staggering around the ring.  And Romney, while performing better than Perry, at times sounded like 2004 John Kerry defending Social Security.

The performances of Gingrich, Cain and Bachmann reminded us that there is still a long way to go in this process.  I’m not saying Gingrich, Cain or Bachmann will win the primary. In fact, I’m saying they won’t.  But I’m saying there is a long way to go.

There is plenty of time for Rick Perry to pull a Fred Thompson. (Thompson entered the 2008 GOP primary in September 2007 to high expectations. By January he fizzled out of the race.)  And there is still plenty of time for Chris Christie to pull a Bill Clinton. (Clinton didn’t enter the 1992 Democratic primary until October of 1991.  And he won.)

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