Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) take the stage for a debate in the Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State University August 11, 2011 in Ames, Iowa (Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

The eight candidates at Thursday night’s GOP debate were willing to get into one another’s grills or, failing that, into the grills of the four journalists who subjected them to fair, hard-hitting and well organized questions (this was some of the best moderator work I can recall in a recent presidential debate).

Oddly, things were much more lively before and after the dirge-like “social issues” segment. Those issues were relegated to a brief 10-minute interlude. For whatever reasons, the air seemed to have been sucked out of the room as the candidates were put through their paces on gay marriage, abortion, and Islam. Here are some bleary-eyed observations.

Republican presidential candidates former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, left, and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty are pictured during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Yet on other issues he “pivoted to the general” as observers like to say about candidates who think beyond the primaries and the base.

Huntsman came out, unambiguously, in favor of civil unions. He called attention to China and his unique strengths in dealing with that country. He looked like an exasperated adult--sort of a Red State mirror image of Barack Obama.

Huntsman appeared ready to zing Rick Perry: “We all need prayers and I hope he offers them for everyone on this stage.” But that’s as far as he went.

Rick Santorum is Much More Appealing When NOT Addressing Social Issues: The former senator from Pennsylvania had a good night of it, mostly because he was not rehearsing his anger about being perceived as an “ultra” conservative.

“Iran is not Iceland, Ron” he rightly noted, delivering the remarks that signal the official end of Ron Paul’s presidential dreams (see below).

Santorum was even expressing concerns about the status of gay people under the Iranian Mullahcracy! But then he got back to those social issues. A nation that permits abortion in the case of rape, he pointed out, was a nation that victimized the unborn child twice. The victimization of that other rape victim, the woman, was left unaddressed by Santorum.

Herman Cain Should Simply Stop Making Comments about Religion: If only because he constantly claims he is misquoted or misunderstood. His unfortunate remarks about Muslim loyalty and mosques are well known. Tonight Cain had to walk back ambiguous comments he recently made about Mormonism not really being something that folks in the South might know much about, if you know what he means.

(Michele Bachmann debates Thursday night./Getty))

This deliciously snarky, but very relevant question--after all, it is Bachmann who draws attention to her faith on the campaign trail--was met with a lusty chorus of boos.

But Bachmann was ready, trans-valuing “submit” to mean “respect.” It may not have satisfied fundamentalists, but it was an effective response--a little hermeneutical jujitsu. Crisis averted.

Newt Gingrich: A Lesson in Journalistic Ethics: Back in 2008 a word cloud depicting a GOP presidential debate would have had a gargantuan REAGAN at is center. No longer. Only Newt invoked the Great Communicator and then, cuz he felt like it, he roughed up Chris Wallace.

True journalists, charged the former speaker of the house, don’t focus on minutiae. True journalists, Gingrich insinuated, do let Republicans demonstrate how different they are from Barack Obama.

Mitt Romney: On Top For Now?: Romney is the frontrunner and understandably so. He can unite fiscal conservatives and those social conservatives who don’t harbor irrational prejudices toward Mormons. He has a foot in both of the GOP’s roiling streams.

Tonight he spent a good deal of time discussing his experience as a business man placating the money wing of the GOP. For the sake of the social conservatives he reiterated his preference for a federal marriage amendment (“ I believe the issue of marriage should be decided at the federal level. . .people move from state to state”).

Rick Perry’s forthcoming entrance into the race is Romney’s next big challenge. Like Mike Huckabee back in 2008. Perry will demonstrate a unique ability to pick off Romney-friendly evangelicals. This is the biggest threat to Romney’s presidential bid and his handlers better be ready.

Ron Paul: It Was Fun While It Lasted: Even liberals will have a hard time nodding their heads in approval to Paul’s extended defense of Iran’s right to develop nuclear weapons. Why Ron? Why?

Years from now Paul will be seen as a mock-up, a precursor to a younger less idiosyncratic Libertarian candidate who stands a chance of winning his or her party’s nomination.

Winners: Fox News and The Washington Examiner. This debate was well run and informative. The questions were tough and the pace brisk. As for the candidates: Huntsman looked like an adult. Bachmann was on message. Santorum performed capably. Newt Gingrich smartly noted that even the Reagan (1980) and McCain (2008) campaigns were once seen as total disasters. So by those standards, he’s right on track!

Losers: TPaw needs to rethink and retool. His scrum with Michele Bachmann did little for him and some consultant needs to figure out why he consistently fails to connect. Ron Paul is done.

Barack Obama should not be too worried about remarks to the effect that he is clueless, ineffectual and incapable of leading. After all, these are Republicans. He should be concerned that some Democrats are making precisely the same allegations.