Newt Gingrich had a bad outing last night, but in many ways his presence in the race has been a great benefit to his competitors, who have had to refine their arguments and adjust their approach to meet his challenge. He has helped Republicans lift their game, to the benefit of the conservative movement and the GOP’s 2012 prospects.

Never before has Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) looked so focused and so bright as when drilling down on Gingrich’s half-truths and exaggerations. The contrast to Gingrich — angry, peevish, extreme in his views (on judges, foreign aid) — helps her seem more grounded and knowledgable. If any candidate has grown in the race (unlike Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Newt Gingrich, who were certainly diminished by it), it is Bachmann. She may not win the presidential nomination (although I’m not foreclosing that possibility), but she has once and for all done away with the annoying association with Sarah Palin. She seems largely to have shed her “Hardball” persona, which was excessively combative in rhetoric and easily lured into ideological fights.

Likewise, we’ve found out that Mitt Romney can throw some punches, defend capitalism, open up a bit on his religious life and refine his use of his Bain experience to attack the president and highlight his business credentials. In contrast to the bombastic former speaker, Romney has demonstrated there is something to be said for stability and even humility. (Missing out on the investment in Jet Blue is one of the humanizing experiences he has begun to highlight.) He has also firmed up his position on spending and entitlements, showing himself to be more conservative than some give him credit for.

But no one has been helped more by Gingrich’s presence — and flaws — than Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) Gingrich’s multiple attacks on Ryan sparked conservatives to rally around him and his Medicare reform plan. It has become obvious (and no doubt the reason for many of Gingrich’s attacks) that the real wonk in the Republican Party, the ideas man and the builder of coalitions, is Ryan. Unlike Gingrich, however, Ryan can separate dumb ideas from good ones, work with Democrats and use historical reference to highlight policy points, not simply to show off. Ryan was on the rise before Gingrich emerged as his nemesis, but Gingrich’s swings and misses at Ryan confirmed that the latter is the party’s all star.

At times Republicans have been despondent about the field of candidates. But they should have been proud last night as the not-Gingrich candidates chided his extremism on the courts, held him to account for his views and stood up for real capitalism. In Gingrich’s presence, they have never shone so brightly.