Well, it was the feistiest debate — Rick Perry even stayed awake for the whole thing, which was a nice change — and we had the welcome (at least for entertainment purposes) return of the Crazy GOP Audience thing, this time cheering for the idea that the unemployed were the ones to blame for unemployment. The debate to me had a clear loser…Anderson Cooper. I’ll get to that later.

Did we have a winner? Mitt Romney continues to be far and away the best of the group at this, but for a change the others actually took him on quite a bit: everyone on health care, and Rick Perry on immigration, reviving the 2004 question about whether Romney had employed people he ought not to have employed. As I saw it, the group of them collectively landed a few solid shots, although again Romney is just so much better at the format that for the debate itself, I think you would have to call him a winner on points.

But if I had to try to find news in the proceedings, and I’m hiding it down here because it’s certainly not a big headline, it would have to be that Rick Perry didn’t do nearly as badly as in past debates. He’s still not very good at debating, and during their one-on-one confrontations Romney seemed to be the winner to my eyes, but for the first time I think that it was close enough that Perry supporters could walk away without being embarrassed. And those who are desperate to find an alternative to Romney wouldn’t be hard pressed to consider him based on what they saw. At least, for those in touch with reality enough that they’re not going to support one of the vanity candidates, and those who are mainstream conservatives and therefore uninterested in Ron Paul (or the missing Gary Johnson).

Not that there was anything that happened tonight that would hint at Rick Perry breaking out and reviving his support in the polls. But for those who were naturally drawn to him by the logic of the race but shied off because of his poor debate performances (and the issues he ran into trouble on, immigration and immunization), tonight’s debate probably didn’t pushed them farther away. For Perry, that’s a whole lot better than any of the other debates.

Oh, there were five other candidates there. They aren’t gonna be the nominees. They say lots of crazy stuff (and, sometimes, surprisingly sensible things). Good entertainment; doesn’t have much to do with the nomination battle.

One more thing. There are plenty of fact-checkers around, and I don’t really consider it part of my job here to think about where candidates messed up, especially since a lot of their factually incorrect statements are just playing to their audience, and you sort of have to expect a lot of that. But Anderson Cooper, the CNN moderator, has no excuse: his claim that 47% of American pay no taxes was inexcusable. Just terrible. The correct stat is that 47% of US households don’t pay federal income taxes, which is very different. It’s bad when politicians get basic factual stuff wrong; it’s terrible when CNN does. To me at least, the debate had a clear loser, and it was Anderson Cooper and CNN for that question.