Recent months have jammed the airwaves and the linkwaves with talk about the so-called Fox News primary. It’s the idea that the preferred outlet of the American right arrives at its own preferences regarding the Republican primary candidates — and that particular “race” plays an outsized role in determining who ends up facing the incumbent president. In a captivating segment early this month, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow broke down the complexion of this all-important winnowing process.

Whatever the status of the Fox primary, it took a hiatus for Thursday night’s Iowa presidential debate, which was sponsored and ably administered by Fox News. Over two hours of substantive and fast-moving discussion, the network’s top interrogators put strong, fresh and relevant questions to all the remaining major candidates in the contest.

Rick Perry got a pointed question about his debating weaknesses and how they’d play in face-offs against President Obama; Michele Bachmann got a pointed question about her crossover appeal; Newt Gingrich got a pointed question about receiving money from Freddie Mac; Ron Paul got a pointed question about possible hypocrisy in his handling of earmarks; Jon Huntsman got a not-so-very-pointed question about his favorite topic (China); Rick Santorum...did he get grilled?.

That brings us to Mitt Romney, who got a pointed question about his record of exploring both sides of various issues. Fox anchor Chris Wallace asked about flip-flopping on abortion, gay rights and guns. Romney responded that he’d changed his mind on abortion. Wallace unholstered a set of facts on gay rights and gun laws. He sort of “gotcha’d” Romney, who responded that those facts align with his own representations. Then came a telling moment.

Had Wallace continued banging away at Romney for another round, his pursuit would have come off as excessive, prosecutorial. He wisely deferred to Santorum, asking the former senator if he was satisfied with Romney’s answers. The session’s format held its ground.

Like true television impresarios, Fox kept promising that the debate would feature a topic that hadn’t been broached during the debates. It sounded cheesy and inspired some Twitter joking about what the mystery topic would be. One guess was “beastiality.”

When the unveiling came, it turned out that Bret Baier’s hype was justified. Legal eagle Megyn Kelly then proceeded to press Newt Gingrich on his radical ideas to rein in federal judges. What followed was little posturing and lots of policy, punctuated by an articulate assertion by Paul that dragging judges before Congress to account for themselves would mess with the separation of powers.

This debate won’t be remembered because of some $10,000 moment. Or the moment when stray audience members cheered on someone’s hypothetical death. It may not be remembered at all, perhaps because it was so full of substance and intensity. After all, it produced this signature line, from Bachmann: “I’m a serious candidate for president of the United States and my facts are accurate.” Yeah, that’s the kind of debate it was.