The Bachmann fade must have warmed the heart of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He was not on stage, but he’s about to get into the race and will be roaming around Iowa during the weekend’s much-hyped straw poll. My hunch is that after tonight, a fair share of Bachmann’s supporters will think of switching to Perry, positioned about as far to the right as Bachmann is.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman made a strong debut and probably did himself more good than anyone else simply because a lot of Republicans who had never seen him before were probably impressed. He looked reasonable and in control. I suspect it will be hard to refute his argument, made again tonight, that patriotism and service were reason enough to accept his appointment by President Obama as ambassador to China -- even if lots of GOP primary voters will never forgive him for doing so. And he didn’t back down an inch from his support for civil unions for gays and lesbians. That is not exactly a popular position among Republicans, but he looked stronger for not fudging or ducking.

Mitt Romney continued to look disciplined and, like him or not, he looked like a plausible president. He knows what he wants to say, and says it clearly. In the early going, in fact, Newt Gingrich, Romney and Huntsman were all crisp. Gingrich was particularly sharp in using his record in Congress during the Reagan and Clinton Eras to make the case that he could work effectively with a divided Congress.

Before he got embroiled with Bachmann, Pawlenty looked at ease and drew warm laughter when he said that if anyone who could find a specific plan from President Obama, “I will come to your house and cook you dinner.” When the initial laughter died down, he drew another round when he added: “Or, if you prefer, I’ll come to your house and mow your lawn. But in case Mitt wins, I’m limiting it to one acre,” a mild knock on the former Massachusetts’ governor’s wealth. Romney graciously let it go by with a smile.

But then came the fireworks as Minnesota Nice turned into Minnesota Mean with Pawlenty and Bachmann squaring off in one of the harshest exchanges I have ever seen in an intra-party debate.

Bachmann wore a deep scowl even before Pawlenty took an unusually hard shot at her, declaring that “her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent. That’s not going to be good enough.” He added: “The American people are going to expect more and demand more.”

Bachmann hit back hard at Pawlenty, assailing him for supporting cap-and-trade and for declaring that “the era of small government is over.” Pawlenty, she said, “sounds a lot more like Barack Obama if you ask me.” Pawlenty retorted that Bachmann had a record of “making false statements.”

It never hurts a Republican to attack the media, and Gingrich probably won some Republicans hearts when he got into the spirit of the Pawlenty-Bachmann exchange. But his target was Fox News’ Chris Wallace. When Wallace asked Gingrich about the various well-publicized problems in his campaign, Gingrich didn’t answer; he attacked the question. He noted the debate moderator’s opening statement inviting candidates to put aside talking points and said that this should also have meant that debate panelists would put aside “gotcha questions.” The crowd loved it, but good for Wallace for continuing to pose tough queries.

Ron Paul was in a different universe, philosophically-speaking: an anti-war, gold-standard-loving, utterly consistent libertarian. Judging from the loud cheers he kept drawing from a substantial share of the audience, one suspects he will do very well in the straw poll. His wing of the Republican Party may be relatively small, but it is very devoted. Paul didn’t back down from his civil libertarian and non-interventionist views when challenged by Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum, and stoutly assailed his opponents for offering “war propaganda.”

“It’s time we quit this,” Paul declared..

Santorum, who did well in the last debate, had trouble getting heard this time until the debate’s final half hour or so, and he complained about it several times. Businessman Herman Cain enjoyed himself -- and he is not going to get very far once the voting starts.

The night was most important for Pawlenty, and on the whole, he performed far better than he had in the New Hampshire debate. He did what he failed to do the last time around, standing behind his campaign trail criticisms of Romney on health care and expanding his critique to Romney’s choices for Massachusetts judgeships and to other issues. Absent the Bachmann exchange, it was a good night for him. But I wonder if that rather bitter moment ends up being the only part of his presentation that GOP voters really remember.

In the meantime, nothing anyone did dislodged Romney as the front-runner. For now, at least, only Rick Perry seems to have a chance of doing that. But I continue to think that writing off Huntsman entirely is a mistake, and his debate performance only strengthened that view.

More from PostOpinions:

Stromberg: The GOP debate in two minutes

Rubin: Romney, Bachmann win; Pawlenty fails

Petri: Pawlenty wins, Bachmann loses

Marcus: Gilligan’s GOP Island

Robinson: GOP Debate Land