It was Rick Santorum's first turn in the white-hot glare of the spotlight, and (not coincidentally) one of his worst performances ever. He somehow seemed "younger" (more juvenile?) than he had in the past, and as I mentioned below, he just gets lost in jargon and detail -- dragged in too far -- when it falls to him to defend his record. What's more, he really does struggle with a perception (perhaps unfair) that he's less a "happy warrior" than a somewhat bitter ideologue.
Conversely, past in a position where he's got nowhere to go but up, Newt Gingrich shone. Too bad the Gingrich who showed up tonight isn't who he always is (or has been, over the years).
The peaks and valleys in Gingrich and Santorum's performances over the last few debates does point out the relative steadiness of Mitt Romney's performance. When the pressure has been on, he's done what he has to do -- unlike both Gingrich and Santorum who both, to some degree, have choked when confronted with a do-or-die moment.
It strikes me that Santorum did little to advance his own cause tonight, and coupled with Gingrich's strong performance, he's got some reason for concern. That's all good news for Romney, who was strong once again.
By far, the best moment of the debate was when Romney, Gingrich and Santorum nailed Obama for his record on religious freedom. The willingness of both Gingrich and Romney to get between Santorum and the inevitable question on contraception highlighted their understanding of the political danger that being dragged off into the weeds of contraception theory poses for the ultimate nominee . . . whoever it is.
If there was a takeaway tonight, it was that it's easier to be an insurgent than a frontrunner.