Editor's note: William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- Up until last night, there had been a lot of grousing about the field of Republican candidates and likely candidates for the 2012 nomination for president. From the cocktail party circuit to the Tea Party meetings, one has heard variations of dissatisfaction with the names in play.
Recent polling has backed this up as well. A recent Pew-Washington Post poll revealed that the word "unimpressed" was the most commonly used adjective to describe the field. It was followed by the words "disappointment" and "weak." After last night, I believe this will change. It should.
Already, before last night's debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was shown to best President Barack Obama, according to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, and CNN had noted an increase of registered Republicans who said they were "very enthusiastic" about voting this November.
Of course it's still early, nearly a year and a half before the election, and others could enter the race. Former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is likely, Texas Gov. Rick Perry perhaps, maybe former New York Gov. Rudy Giuliani; but it looks like this is the field. And, as former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie put it, "We have a field that will produce a nominee capable of beating Obama next November."
The complaining needs to end, and Republican voters need to start listening more to what the declared candidates are saying. They have each worked hard and have a long road of hard work ahead. And, while each of them has downsides and challenges, almost any one of them has or will have what it takes to prevail.
Yes, Obama remains popular; yes, the Republicans are going to spend the next several months trying to distinguish themselves from one another (and, thus, criticize one another); but the current cover of The Economist magazine has it right: Obama is gazing down at a field of would-be Republican candidates sparring with one another, saying to himself, "And yet I could still lose."
Why could he still lose? A major piece of legislation (health care) that the president and his party pushed through and that a majority of Americans still opposes, and an unemployment rate not very likely to drop two points.
But there's one more big reason: Each of the candidates in last night's debate has more experience with the issues before us than Obama did when he ran for president, and they proved themselves up to the task of dealing with those issues seriously. My quick take on the candidates' pros and cons last night, going from left to right:
Rick Santorum: He seemed to receive the least amount of time but clearly knows the ins and outs of the issues as well as anyone. His answer on Medicare was illustrative of his breadth, and it was his finest moment of the night. He is known in the mainstream media for his social conservatism, but he wrote the welfare reform act and has written key legislation on Syria and Iran, two countries very much in the news today. It would have been good to hear him more about our engagement, or lack thereof, in those countries.
Michele Bachmann: I can't say it better than Rich Lowry of National Review: She showed she belonged on that stage. The mainstream media portrays her as a firebrand, but last night she was smart and engaging, and she proved she could hold her own on any issue thrown her way. As a former tax litigator, she should be drawn out more on tax policy. And it would be good to hear her out on foreign policy, an issue that was given too short shrift last night. In a sense, she may have been the winner of the debate as she showed a relevance many had questioned and surpassed mainstream expectations.
Newt Gingrich: He needed to prove he was still relevant after several bad news weeks, from his staff resigning to the contretemps over Paul Ryan's Medicare plan. He did. Although his strength is usually in the longer answers to questions, last night he was clever and quick. But he did come off as against the ropes with the most to prove and lose. Perhaps that affected his demeanor, which needs, still, a softer, "happy warrior" touch.
Mitt Romney: As the front-runner, he was probably expecting to take a lot of slings and arrows last night. But none came. Even Tim Pawlenty, who was served the opportunity to criticize Romney, turned it down. He comes off presidential because he is presidential, almost always at ease, almost always unflappable. His answer on "Romneycare" as distinct from "Obamacare" was, however, not convincing, and he will have to find a way to better explain why a mandate is not a mandate. His answer on the auto bailouts was much better and reminded people of his economic and business background. He is still the front-runner after last night, even though he laid no particular punches against the others.
Ron Paul: He never came off more reasonable than he did last night. But the center of his candidacy is, even by his own admission toward the end, focused on closing down the Federal Reserve. There is simply not enough of a constituency in the electorate or the elected to do that. His answer on foreign policy was also so very far from the Republican mainstream that his chances for the nomination, despite his popularity with libertarians, is even less than the polls show.
Tim Pawlenty: He needs to do better in the polls to maintain his status as a front-runner. I know him to be quick, smart, clever and cheerful. Last night, that just didn't show. He did better in the South Carolina debate last month, and I suspect will do better in the next debate. I'm guessing that if he was looking for a bump out of the debate, he will have to wait for the next one. If, however, parts of the base of the party didn't know enough about his record on social conservatism, they got that last night and he articulately made the case for himself.
Herman Cain: His numbers went up after the last debate, and they will go up again after this one. His charm is infectious, and for the parts of the party looking for a businessman with a unique way of talking about things, "untainted" by political experience, they could not do better.
The point of these debates is not only to see the candidates' views and differences, to learn more about their experience and proposals, but also to determine how they will come off and debate in the general election. By those criteria, each and every one of them would be able to stand up against Obama.
If another candidate is to enter, the rationale will need to be explained -- the experience, breadth and depth of the current candidates are comprehensive, and each one of them deserves his or her due for entering the fray, offering themselves up and taking on both the issues and the president.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.