My instant analysis from Sioux City, Iowa:
Gingrich - A mixed performance from the former Speaker tonight. Gingrich started out on shaky ground as moderators and rivals alike pounced on his Freddie Mac money problem. His answer was erratic and unconvincing -- comparing the huge, broken GSE to Habitat for Humanity and asserting that it "shares his values." His contention that his actions weren't tantamount to lobbying drew scrutiny and fire from several other candidates, and his suggestion that he didn't actually attack the Ryan Medicare reform plan was preposterous on its face. As the night wore on, though, Newt hit his groove. His best moment came in his forceful and common-sense denunciation of President Obama's energy and jobs failure on the Keystone XL project. Another memorable answer dealt with his controversial position on reigning in the power of the judiciary. Democrats would surely make an issue out of this in a general election if Newt's the nominee, but tonight he cited history and built his case. Elections aren't abstact policy debates, of course, but Newt acquitted himself well by defending a "zanyish" policy pronouncement. With his support stalling in Iowa, Gingrich was hoping to right the ship in a favorable setting. If most viewers watched the first half hour, then flipped channels, his showing may have damaged him. If they stuck around, he'll be just fine.
Romney - The former Massachusetts Governor was strong and steady tonight, a significant improvement over his unfocused and testy effort on Saturday. He dealt expertly with the inevitable Bain Capital/Newt criticism, saying that the attack was a great opportunity to refute a disingenuous argument President Obama would make against him in a general contest. In this answer, he both turned the focus back to conservatives' true adversary, and took a subtle, backhanded slap at Gingrich without seeming irritable. Romney's answer on the future of American jobs -- basically, that the market and not government will determine which sectors will thrive -- was excellent, especially because he raised the specter of Solyndra. His attack on President Obama's "pretty please" foreign policy was also a good moment. Time and again, the former governor trained his fire on Obama. Bravo. His weakest moments came under intense and well-researched questioning from Chris Wallace about his tenure in Massachusetts. Romney parried a number of the charges effectively (like his answer on judges and abortion), but seemed ruffled and evasive on others (his answer on guns comes to mind). Overall, it was a good night for Romney -- especially since he avoided getting caught up in a nasty fight with Gingrich, in part because other candidates were out for Newt's political blood.
Paul - Since he is a top-three candidate here in Iowa, I'll devote more space to discussing the Texas Representative than I generally would. His fans will adamantly disagree, but Ron Paul disqualifies himself with every answer he offers on Iranian nuclear weapons. He came out against an invasion of Iran to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons. Many would argue the US should never take options off the table, especially with such high civilizational stakes, but Paul's position is at least defensible on that point. Where he really goes off the rails is when he rejects sanctions as an option, and even suggests that openly opposing Iran's nuclear ambitions rhetorically emboldens them to pursue the weapons programs. He almost crossed over into advocating for Iranian nukes at one point, pointing out that, hey, they're surrounded by some nuclear states, so why not? His clarification that he "opposes" their nuclear weapons program (which he also claims doesn't exist) is meaningless. If you oppose something, but you're unwilling to do literally anything to stop it, that's not opposition. His repeated analogizing Soviet leadership to Iran's mullahs on mutually assured destructon also deeply misreads both the moment and history. Though Paul's answers were extreme and reckless in and of themselves, his disposition was equally off-putting. He sputtered angrily and spoke so quickly at times that it was hard to follow his answers. I know some people look at him and think, "he's right on issues, and he's electable in a general." I'm not among them. Finally, I wish Megyn Kelly had followed-up on her challenge about whether Paul would swear-off a third-party bid. Rep. Paul dodged the question, which is troubling.
Perry - Don't look now, but Rick Perry just turned in another good debate. It wasn't as jump-off-the-screen powerful as Saturday's effort, but it was solid. His populism on making Congress a part-time enterprise thrilled the crowd -- don't forget, Congress is one of the least popular entities in the country at the moment, so beating up on them is good politics. It has zero chance of happening, though, which even many of the people applauding must know. Perry also had a good riff on the tenth amendment in response to what could have -- maybe should have -- been a tough answer on crony capitalism. His Tebow reference was clearly rehearsed, but was sly nonetheless. Tebow is a winner and Christian conservatives adore him, for obvious reasons, plus Iowans love their football. Casting himself as the underdog is a smart move, although I'd bet some of his supporters wish he'd steer answers back to his job-creation record as governor more often than he did tonight. In my preview post, I mentioned a groundswell for Perry I've detected here in the Hawkeye State. Tonight probably nurtured that comeback. It certainly didn't curtail it.
Bachmann - This may have been Bachmann's best debate performance of the cycle. She's been good at times, but tonight she pulled it all together. Her colloquy with Gingrich on lobbying and influence peddling was illuminating, and I think she got the best of the exchange. The Minnesota representative's spirited dissents from Ron Paul's wrongheadedness were also memorable. Will it be enough to spark a comeback? Perhaps, perhaps not. But Bachmann supporters should rest assured that their candidate stuck the landing on her closing argument in a state where she desperately needs to "place."
Santorum - Like Bachmann, the former Pennsylvania Senator more than held his own tonight. His references to his record and leadership in Congress were timely and relevant. His clarity on Iran was needed and important. He also played the role of attack dog on several occasions, going after Gingrich in the opening minutes, then firing at Romney on marriage in the evening's closing minutes.
Huntsman - As someone who respects Huntsman's resume and believes his record is actually demonstrably more conservative than many people give him credit for, I take no pleasure in saying that I found myself wishing he weren't on stage during most of his answers. His delivery is lecturing and stilted, and he really struggles to connect with audiences. It almost seems as though he's rarely interested in answering the actual question posed to him (not unusual for any politician), so he tries to shoehorn a few buzz-words and tropes ("fixing our core," "crisis of trust) into every answer. I think Huntsman has a bright future in American politics and international relations. I'm just not sure if he's cut out to be president.
Fox News - Major up-twinkles for including Neil Cavuto, having lots of research on hand to challenge candidate's occasionally revisionist answers, and for finally asking a fast and furious question. (I remain mystified that this issue hasn't gotten more play at these debates. That's not entirely the media's fault; candidates have openings to raise it, and they don't). The whole first segment of questions, however, was a waste. It felt more like a panel discussion of pundits debating whether candidate X is electable, or not. After the opening round misfire, the balance of the debate was presented well.
Those are my two cents. Agree? Disagree? Think I'm an imbecile? Feel free to hash it out in the comments section. Meanwhile, January 3rd beckons. After approximately 6,000 primary debates, voters will finally begin to have their say.