The first Republican debate, featuring just five candidates (of whom only one has a shot at the nomination) proved to be more entertaining than expected. Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson livened up things with a defense of immigration, a discussion of drug legalization and a vivid description of his mountain climbing exploits. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), sounding like candidate Barack Obama circa 2007 on national security, explained that he’d bring all the troops home and, yes, since you ask, heroin use and prostitution are expressions of freedom. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum declared that he knew how to beat incumbent Democrats, which might be technically correct since his last race, a 16-point blowout loss, was to a Democratic challenger. Herman Cain proved charming and made a bold defense of non-politicians going to Washington. While a Fox focus group and a number of pundits praised his performance, the veneer of credibility as a presidential candidate rubbed away when a follow-up question on Afghanistan left him groping for a response.

And Tim Pawlenty showed himself fluent on foreign policy, down to earth (his meatpacking-town background came up more than once) and the victim of a bad makeup job (maybe the same person who gave Al Gore a carrot-like appearance in 2000).

Did we learn anything? Well, it’s plain that Pawlenty has worked on his delivery, hasn’t drunk the isolationist Kool-aid and is going to use his blue-collar biography to attack the president on the economy. He also made a refreshing admission of error on cap-and-trade, saying, “I just admit. I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away, I’m just telling you, I made a mistake.” The point was clear: Unlike Mitt Romney, Pawlenty is going to admit a policy error and move on. His biggest applause line was his indictment of a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board (“preposterous!”) that found that Boeing could not open a new plant in the right-to-work state of South Carolina.

The Fox moderators were up to speed, digging out candidates’ past statements and goading them into commenting on their competitors.

Pawlenty did what he came to do: demonstrate a level of preparedness and rhetorical prowess that many voters had not previously witnessed. He showed the Minnesota “nice” when asked about former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. “I love the Huck,” he responded. Santorum began strong but soon found himself bogged down in exaggerated statements of ideological purity (“I think anybody who would suggest that we declare a truce on the moral issues doesn’t understand what America is about,” he said in a pummeling of the absent Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who proposed a “social truce.”). Santorum also showed his prickly side as he testily recounted his record in a sort of “Don’t you know who I am?” moment. He is not a warm, fuzzy personality. It showed.

The losers were plainly those who didn’t show. Sarah Palin was entirely ignored, as was Donald Trump. Romney came in for some indirect swipes (Santorum explained that ObamaCare was a fundamental threat to freedom). One wonders how long Romney can put off a debate appearance, when he will be set upon from all directions.

Some questioned why Pawlenty showed up with the “B” team. The answer: to make a good first impression and get a debate under his belt. When the other top-tier contenders join the fray he’ll have to distinguish himself..

Most important for the GOP, the candidates all demonstrated that in the week of President Obama’s greatest triumph he could still be challenged on jobs, the debt, the Arab Spring, health care and energy. If Obama was expecting a breather from conservative attacks, he was badly mistaken. There is after all a presidential race underway.