Williams ran into Newt's buzz saw as he wrapped up an entire segment of race-related questions, not all of which were unwarranted or out of bounds. His challenge to Gingrich (essentially, aren't you at least being racially insensitive?) didn't sit well with the audience. Rather than lashing out in anger -- as he is sometimes wont to do -- Newt dissected Williams' question with precision. He gave explicit examples, cited relevant and accurate facts, and extolled the virtues of hard work and individual responsibility. This earned him a standing ovation. Newt had several other strong answers, including responses on education reform, a wonky discussion of Social Security fixes, and a good defense of his voting record on abortion.
Aside from Newt's clear win, I'd say that Rick Santorum turned in a very solid performance, Rick Perry was hit-and-miss (some refreshing candor, mixed with other vague and muddled answers), and Ron Paul seemed more erratic and ruffled than usual. As the frontrunner, Mitt Romney survived without doing any significant damage to himself, but tonight was definitely not his strongest showing. At the very beginning, Romney was prepared with effective ripostes on Bain Capital. After winning that opening round, however, he stumbled on Rick Santorum's challenge on ex-felons' rights (Romney seemed flummoxed by the issue in general) and stammered on the question of whether he'll release his tax returns. His answer was basically, yeah, I'll release them in the spring. ABC News' Jon Karl smartly notes that this time frame would allow Romney to possibly wrap up the nomination, dump the documents, and have the fallout (surprise, he's very rich!) be old news by the late summer -- when the campaign really heats up. Romney's problem was that he sounded extremely slippery in his answer. The substance of his response was reasonable; his tone was needlessly self-incriminating. After those slips, Romney recovered and was sturdy for the balance of the program.
One last note: Fox News put on a good debate. Question selection was better than what we've seen recently (ahem), and candidates were given enough leeway to genuinely debate at certain points, rather than delivering a series of disjointed mini speeches. Having fewer candidates on stage helped foster this dynamic. I was particularly edified by a lengthy and substantive discussion among Santorum, Gingrich and Romney on entitlement reform, the likes of which we haven't seen in any debate thus far. Parting thought: Over the last two weeks, Republican candidates have submitted themselves to one debate co-hosted by a former top spinmeister for a Democratic administration (Stephanopoulos) and another co-moderated by an admittedly liberal commentator (Williams). Would Democrats ever agree to debates featuring, say, Karl Rove and George Will? Ever?