The final presidential debate of 2011 started out slowly with too many questions on how the candidates think they can win, but in the last 90 minutes there was plenty of excitement. Newt Gingrich in the first half of the debate hurt himself badly, but came back somewhat in the second half. Mitt Romney had perhaps his strongest debate, as did Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) blew himself up with his nutty, conspiratorial views on foreign policy.

Early on, Gingrich got trapped in a duel with Bachmann and lost. He insisted he wasn’t a lobbyist. She pointed out he took money from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and peddled influence. Ron Paul piled on, saying it was really wrong to take money from subsidized government entities. Once again, Gingrich came off as the D.C. insider, and dishonest to boot.

On a question on the judiciary, Gingrich showed his propensity to come up with big and incredibly wrong-headed ideas. Asked about activist courts, Gingrich plunged into plans to subpoena federal judges or close down courts. When pressed, he insisted Thomas Jefferson would have approved. That’s malarkey, blurring the difference between Jefferson’s caution about the reach of courts and Gingrich’s unconstitutional, rash ideas. Romney, Bachmann and Paul (of all people) responded properly, disclaiming Gingrich’s idea to make Congress the master of the courts.

Late in the debate, Bachmann zinged him on his views on partial birth abortion and stem cell research. When he retorted that she had gotten her facts wrong, she came back strongly, citing her facts on his support for Republican candidates defending partial birth abortion.

At one point, he falsely claimed he had never attacked Rep Paul Ryan on Meet the Press. Host David Gregory tweeted: “Gingrich is wrong. My question was directly about the Ryan plan.” His habit of rearranging the facts to fit his own narrative was on full display.

Later in the debate, Gingrich revived somewhat with a solid answer on the Keystone XL Pipeline and on the Middle East. But if the goal was to remove the concerns about his temperament, his attacks on Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his anti-capitalist attacks on Romney he likely didn’t accomplish that. There will be more material for negative ads in the weeks ahead.

Mitt Romney had his best debate at a critical point in the campaign. No other candidate laid a hand on him. He was subtle on his Bain experience, tying Gingrich’s anti-capitalist attack to the president and thereby accusing both of not understanding the free market. Later when asked what sector of the economy would create the most jobs he calmly explained, “The great thing is the free market will decide that, government won’t. We have in a president, someone who, again, doesn’t understand how the economy works, and thinks that as a government, he can choose for instance which energy sector is going to be successful.. . . The president decides to go into Solyndra because he thinks that solar power is going to be the future. Look, let the markets determine what the future course of our economy will be.”

His best answer, however, came on foreign policy. “Does timidity and weakness invite aggression on the part of other people? Absolutely.” And on the downed drone in Iran, he retorted, “A foreign policy based on pretty please? You got to be kidding.”

In a series of questions about his policy changes on guns, abortion and gay marriage he calmly addressed his record, arguing he’d always been against anti-gay discrimination but also defended “traditional marriage.”

One debate doesn’t make for a caucus win or an election. However, by appearing presidential and in control of himself and his message he did himself a world of good.

Paul likely doomed his chances to move out of his niche with seemingly endless comments on Iran (claiming the IAEA didn’t find Iran on the brink of obtaining nuclear weapons) and demanding we spend defense funds to “help people,” an odd position for a libertarian. Again and again Bachmann took him on, at one point saying that “with all due respect” to Paul, that he rambling was the most dangerous thing she’d ever heard on foreign policy.

While Paul and Gingrich faltered, Bachmann shined. She had her facts straight, and methodically went after Gingrich for lobbying and Paul for craziness on foreign policy. When Gingrich once again in these debates accused her of not knowing her facts she showed a little righteous indignation, saying she sure did and was a “serious candidate.” Gingrich has a gender gap problem for a reason; He comes across to women as arrogant and condescending.

Perry had his moments in a dig at Gingrich who, he said, could not tell the difference between consulting and lobbying. But he also had a cringe-inducing Tim Tebow reference, reiterated his call for a “fly over” zone over Syria and defended crony capitalism by the states. He was a bit more likeable and chose not to attack most of his opponents but it is hard to see that he will benefit from this.

Santorum was solid, and with one exception (on judges), resisted the urge to say ”I did that!” in reference to his Senate record. He tried and largely failed to grill Romney on he intricacies of the Massachusetts constitution. Once again, however, he was bold on foreign policy, making clear that mutual assured destruction doesn’t work with those anxious to be martyrs.

Huntsman was there, making odd claims (e.g. China is the only country that matters in foriegn policy, and our foreign policy should be driven purely by economics). His manner comes across as haughty. It is hard to see him gaining traction in Iowa.

Winners: Romney (who might have revived his frontrunner status) and Bachmann. And the rest of us, who don’t have to wade through any more debates — until 2012.

Losers: Gingrich and Paul.