Tonight’s face-off in South Carolina was the most interesting and revealing to date. What started out as a triumph for Newt Gingrich in media bashing became an effective showcase for he, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who drew the first real blood from Gingrich.

Moderator John King started off with an idiotic set-up for Gingrich, asking him directly about his ex-wife Marianne’s allegation about his demand for an open marriage. And Newt was off railing at the media, decrying the attack and getting an ovation from the crowd. The episode confirmed that: 1) King is certainly the dimmest man on cable news and 2) If the election were against the media rather that Barack Obama, Gingrich would be ideal.

However, from then on out Gingrich did not dominate the remainder of the debate. He got some applause for standing with “freedom” and against the Stop Online Piracy Act. He may, however, have given his opponents a punch line when he embraced Santorum’s accusation and declare himself to believe in “grandiose” ideas. He ran through his immigration plan with relatively little difficulty, although Romney and Santorum gently but firmly upstaged him for the conservative crowd by insisting that we not give a preferential “pathway to citizenship.” His call for his Lincoln-Douglas style debates came off as shopworn. In short, Gingrich had a great five minutes, but did not carry the rest of the debate.

However, Gingrich may have met his debating equal in Rick Santorum. Certainly, Santorum’s answers lacked punchy topic sentences, but he made devastating points. He tied Gingrich to Romney on the individual mandate. He sounded like a Romney surrogate in indicting Gingrich’s conduct as speaker and Newt’s failure to execute his ideas. He chastised Gingrich for suggesting he get out of the race, saying “these are not cogent thoughts.”He dinged both Romney and Gingrich on abortion, accusing Romney of passing taxpayer funded abortion (a claim Politifact rated “mostly false”) and Gingrich of pushing social issues to the rear. He rebuked both Gingrich and Romney on illegal immigration, making a strong pitch in favor of legal immigration. And he summarized his case as effectively as he has to date: “I’m steady, I’m solid, I’ll make Obama the issue.” Boom. In other words, I’m more conservative and I’m not going to give you a coronary. It might not be enough in South Carolina, but he’s got a theme for the primaries ahead.

Mitt Romney came back from Monday night with a solid performance. After neatly sidestepping the Marianne issue by urging King to get on with the “real issues,” he defended himself as the only one not from Washington and able to talk about the real economy. He rebutted criticism calmly on RomneyCare and abortion, causing Gingrich for once to pass up a turn to rebut. On both his Bain experience and his tax returns — he’ll release them all in one batch in April, he said — he drew hearty applause by saying he would not apologize for success and would defend the profit motive. That, it seems, will be his core argument going forward. But the best part of the debate for his team was an hilarious email (“I think grandiose thoughts”) sent by his campaign listing all the great historic figures to whom Gingrich has compared himself. In a nutshell, that’s the argument against Gingrich: He’s loony.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) was largely a bit player, but did get to tweak Santorum for reacting defensively to his comments on abortion. “I didn’t have you in mind,” Paul laughed. He fortunately largely avoided national security aside from his silly claim that he could pay for healthcare by cutting the military budget.

Winners: Gingrich’s first answer, Santorum, the “I think gandiose thoughts email, Romney’s defense of the profit motive

Losers: John King, those who wanted the race to end in South Carolina