Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, center, speaks as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, listen during a Republican presidential debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. (Eric Gay/AP)

Rick Perry Tebows Himself: The Governor of Texas paralleled himself to the Denver Broncos’ conservative Christian quarterback and fourth-quarter messiah, Tim Tebow: “There were a lot of folks who said Tim Tebow wasn’t going to be a very good NFL quarterback . . I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa Caucus.”

Perry, who looked positively ebullient all night long–he kept reminding me of beloved Hollywood Square Paul Lynde for some reason– was so pleased with the comparison that he seemed about to ask Michele Bachmann to go run an out pattern.

Depicting himself as the evangelical Comeback Kid–a pretty canny bit of re-branding that was.

Gingrich Assails the Judiciary: Radical atheists help him make that point: Many of us in the secular community have been urging–begging actually– nonbelievers and radical separationists to choose their court battles wisely.

When the former Speaker of the House invoked Michael Newdow’s quest of a decade ago to have the term “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance (approved by the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco), I could only intone a dreary “uh-oh.”

Newdow’s intervention, as you may recall, didn’t work out too well for American secularists. The outraged Senate in 2002 voted 99-0 to “reaffirm the language of the pledge,” the House, 416-3!

Newdow’s legal pursuits, regardless of their intelligence and even their legal elegance, continue to place secularism on the defensive. Tonight, the highly unpopular Pledge case served as a cover for Newt’s utterly preposterous idea that the legislative branch could check the judiciary simply because it didn’t agree with its decisions. (To their credit, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman called attention to the zaniness of this proposition).

Fox News Understands that Iowa Voters Care about Abortion: I have been complaining for months about GOP debates that ignore the “social issues.” Fox–which serves up a pretty good debate, I think–avoided this puzzling omission.

Michele Bachmann seemed to disorient Newt Gingrich by questioning his pro-life credentials: “When Newt Gingrich was speaker he had an opportunity to defund Planned Parenthood and he decided not to take it . . . he [also] campaigned for candidates who were in favor of partial-birth abortion.”

This led Gingrich to question Bachmann’s grip on the facts. That accusation elicited a riposte from the Minnesota congresswoman that, if I am not mistaken, was tinged with the sentiment that Gingrich was being condescending in a sexist sort of way. Rick Santorum, for his part, touted his record on partial-birth abortion, all the while Mitt Romney fended off the accusation that on questions of choice he was “multiple choice” (to invoke Ted Kennedy’s devastating zinger of yesteryear).

Ron Paul. Whoa. I think America had its Ron Paul moment tonight. I rarely agree with the man, but to his credit he was authentic and unflipflopping to a fault. His dissent on the necessity of American intervention in Iran (and militarism in general) was simply stunning in its willingness to tell GOP voters things they do not want to (or perhaps never?) hear.

By the same token, his blindness on Iran is equally stunning. Bachmann and Santorum, in so many words, kept asking him “what part of ‘wipe Israel off the map’ don’t you understand?”

Prediction: Ron Paul will do well in Iowa and for the rest of the campaign the specter of a third-party run will terrify the GOP establishment.

Who Won?: Newt looked good, but was savaged twice by a feisty Bachmann. The representative from Minnesota gave Iowans 1.6 millions reasons to question Gingrich’s involvement with Freddie Mac. Mitt, for his part, did that statesmanlike, even-keeled thing that he always does. Jon Huntsman, dissing tax pledges, Donald Trump, and judicial deactivism (see above), has me interested.