Newt Gingrich got slammed in the debate by a remarkably invigorated Mitt Romney, an impressive Rick Santorum and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who really wouldn’t let him get away with much.

Romney was clearly on his game, ready to swat down Gingrich. He vigorously defended his success in business and skewered Gingrich on his carping about his capital gains. He tied Gingrich to Freddie Mac and wouldn’t let go, making it clear that Gingrich was a cheerleader for the entity that contributed mightily to the financial crisis. When Gingrich accused himof investing in Freddie, Romney pointed out that they both had investments in mutual funds which held Freddie bonds. On Gingrich’s loony moon colony, he was restrained but emphatic that this was fiscally irreponsible. He gave a very succinct and smart answer on the need to equalize the tax treatment for individually-purchased and employer-provided health care insurance. When it came to talking about his wife he lovingly explained his wife Ann’s fight against MS and cancer. This was a better, sharper, more aggressive candidate than we have seen to date. He very likely sealed a victory for himself in Florida, where he is already leading.

In the lengthy opening segment on immigration he stood firm on his self-deportation stance, on which Rick Santorum backed him up. He did get slightly tangled up by an ad citing Gignrich for calling Spanish the language of the “ghetto,” saying he didn’t know if it was his ad. When Blitzer later confirmed that it was, however, Romney cornered Gingrich, whose defense boiled down to: I didn’t say the word “Spanish.” The Romney team quickly put out its research form Politifact showing that Romney’s ad was “mostly true.”More impressively, he faced down Gingrich for calling him anti-immigrant in a radio ad, reminding the audience that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had rebuked Gingrich and forced the former Speaker to take down the ad. For once, Gingrich looked dumbfounded.

The star of the show, however, may have been Rick Santorum, who put front and center the question Right Turn has been asking: Why in the world is the conservative base favoring Gingrich over this guy? He gave informed and forceful answers on Cuba, Central America and Puerto Rico. He took a baseball bat to both Romney and Gingrich on their support for the individual mandate, making the point that conservatives shouldn’t “give away” this issue. He also, with some verve, ridiculed the moon colony. When Gingrich went on and on Santorum had a priceless look — puzzlement mixed with disdain. (The thought bubble above his head would have read: “Did I tell you he was a crackpot, or what?”)

He was eloquent in his defense of the Constitution as the document to preserve the individual rights set forth in the Declaration. He seemed presidential (at one point calling for a halt to the back-and-forth on Romney’s and Gingrich’s personal finances) and infinitely more sober than Gingrich. His closing speech on his appeal to the blue-collar voters the GOP needs to win in November.

Gingrich had a perfectly dreadful night, appearing angry and then sheepish, nasty and then defensive. He didn’t have well-prepared defenses on his time with Freddie or strong attacks on Romney’s earnings. He played to type in defending his fantastical idea for a space colony. And he sniped at conservatives who have forward to question whether he was all that close to Reagan, calling it part of an organized effort by Romney. For starters, that’s called a “campaign,” and if he can’t handle Romney he’ll be no match for Obama; Moreover, I’d be surprised if the Romney camp had a hand in every statement and article that criticized him over the last week or so. (They aren’t that good.) Conservatives have had enough of him, and have come forward out of fear he might actually get the nomination. After tonight they have less to fear. Not only did Romney have the best debate of the primary season, but Santorum’s strong showing should bleed votes away from Gingrich as well.

Finally, Wolf Blitzer did a commendable job, rebuffing Gingrich’s attempt to duck away from a question on his anti-capital gains language. He kept the proceedings lively and substantive.

Winners: Romney and Santorum

Loser: Gingrich