Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @David_Gergen
Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN) -- The first big Republican debate ended with two clear winners in the race for the nomination: Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann. And there was one other candidate who helped himself: Newt Gingrich.
But whether this debate helped Republicans win the White House is a tougher question.
As to the individual candidates, Romney had a clear, easy-to-understand message and he stuck to it: Barack Obama has failed as president. Other candidates said much the same thing but with less consistency.
Just as important, no one laid a glove on Romney the whole two hours. The biggest surprise of the night was Tim Pawlenty, who ducked an obvious opportunity to hit Romney over health care reform.
Just the day before, Pawlenty had attacked "Obamneycare" on a Sunday talk show, but when moderator John King repeatedly asked Pawlenty in effect to repeat the charge, Pawlenty refused and could hardly look Romney in the eye. And this from a candidate, as King said later on "AC 360", from a man whose book has a title that starts with the word "Courage." As a result, Romney went up in the eyes of the commentariat and Pawlenty fell.
As for Bachmann, she turned out to be the best communicator on stage. Time and again, she sprinkled key facts into pithy, quotable comments so that she held people's attention. She was also able to wind in aspects of her family life that would strike the fancy of many voters -- twice, she told viewers that she and her husband had raised 23 foster children, and this from a couple with five kids of her own.
Who needs Sarah Palin as a candidate when you have Michele Bachmann?
Gingrich entered the night with many pundits wondering whether his candidacy was on the ropes. He left the hall with head up, knowing that he had shown the best substantive grasp of any of the candidates on stage. Whether or not you agree with him, he makes you think.
The harder question is how all this played with the country -- that is, if voters were willing to give up the Bruins for politics. As Ron Paul recognized afterward on "AC 360," this field of candidates is much closer to his anti-governmental, libertarian stance and even to his reluctance to exercise U.S. military force than the Republican candidates of 2008. The candidates tonight were all running to a hard, uncompromising right.
My bet is that with the exception of a few remarks (e.g., Gingrich on Medicare), these candidates played very well with the base of the Republican party, and that base continues to grow more conservative.
But for moderate independents who listened to the whole two hours, I imagine that there was growing discomfort. Why, they might ask, was there so little compassion for the children of undocumented aliens? If a child is of school age, do these candidates honestly believe that she should be turned away from public school? Or when sick, denied emergency hospital care? Surely, they do not, but one could easily have come away with that and similar conclusions.
With the center of the Democratic Party moving left, we seem to be heading into even more partisan and polarized politics. Millions of Americans are yearning for something better.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.
Watch Anderson Cooper 360° weeknights 8pm ET. For the latest from AC360° click here.