The debate was more serious than the outing in New Hampshire. The top tier candidates (excluding Texas Gov. Rick Perry) actually showed up. And we were spared CNN’s John King, who interrupted incessantly. In fact, for those arguing the GOP field is more impressive than conventional wisdom suggests, it was a good night. For Tim Pawlenty, it was a disaster; for Mitt Romney it was a win (whenever the frontrunner doesn’t stumble, it is a victory); and for Michele Bachmann it was proof she is a ferocious competitor, but a sign she may have tougher sledding with more aggressive opponents.

Fox moderator Bret Baier began by asking Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) if we can really improve our economy in three months. She immediately jumped in to remind us she opposed the debt-ceiling deal, claiming was the right thing. She was dishing red meat and never stopped, be it on “man-woman” marriage or claiming vindication on the debt-ceiling.

Mitt Romney took the same question and offered up his private sector experience, rattling off seven policy items (e.g. reduce regulations, don’t spend more than we take in), a sort of political self-help plan. He was asked a tough follow up on his leadership, which he deftly sidestepped by reminding the audience of his cut, cap and balance pledge. Waiting for the query as to whether he would have signed the debt-ceiling bill, he popped up with: “I am not going to eat Obama’s dog food.” If programmed, he was fluent.

Romney had a smooth answer on his record at Bain, a turn-around company, arguing that overall he created tens of thousand of jobs. It was his best answer of the night, making his private sector experience a selling point. On immigration he was equally smooth, making the case for attracting highly skilled workers from overseas. He made a strong pitch for legal immigration. (“I like legal immigration,” he said.) Apparently he wants to win the general election and grab some of the critical Hispanic vote. He easily swatted away a question about his argument for hiking Massachusetts’s credit rating, restating his success in cutting spending as governor.

With minor candidates soaking up time, Tim Pawlenty lacked sufficient time to make a dent. And when he did engage, he came out the big loser. He defended his pro-growth economic speech, and rather than going after Romney, went after President Obama, promising to cook dinner for anyone who could find the president’s specific plans on a range of issue. He then ended on a sour note, saying he, in the alternative, he would come mow the winner’s lawn, so long as he was “limited to one acre” for Romney. It wasn’t funny; he was nasty, and it was unseemly to play a class card. On Bachmann, he repeated his dig that Bachmann’s record was “nonexistent.”

Bachmann then clubbed him, perhaps putting a stake through his campaign. She retorted by going after Pawlenty for his record on cap-and-trade and the individual health-care mandate, accusing him of sounding like Obama . For those seeking the tougher conservative, it was a knock out. Pawlenty sounded peevish in return, saying she was ineffective in opposing Obama’s agenda. He was booed, no doubt because she was in the minority in Congress until this January. She was at the “tip of the spear,” she said. For Pawlenty it was a devastating, maybe fatal, outing, demonstrating that he lacks the moxie to land a punch. Bachmann may have single-handedly ended Pawlenty’s campaign. She gave a somewhat unclear answer on her vote to pass Pawlenty’s budget in Minnesota, arguing it was a vote necessitated to protect anti-abortion measures. The debate was muddled, but Pawleny once again lacked the oomph to pin down Bachmann.

By the time Pawlenty got around to a laundry list of complaints about Romney he was running out of steam. Romney cracked a joke about liking Pawlenty’s answer last time (when Pawlenty wiffed on attacking ”ObamneyCare” and made his 10th Amendment argument on RomneyCare. On the individual mandate, Romney was given a gift, a poorly worded question by Chris Wallace. That allowed Romney to argue he had the power to enact an individual mandate under state law rather than to address the overreaching issue of personal liberty which most concerns conservatives.

Jon Huntsman sounded stilted and off stride for much of debate. He seemed both too liberal and under-prepared for the race, defending his lack of specific plans and referring instead to his own record in Utah. He said to “look at what I did,” but presumably not the cap-and-trade part of his record. When asked about his liberal record and service with the Obama administration, Huntsman rather starchily responded by defending the call to serve. He didn’t quite explain, however, why he was enthusiastic about the Obama stimulus plan. The room was silent. On citizenship for illegal immigrants he stumbled around and talked about other issues.

Newt Gingrich was actually impressive at times, giving sensible answers on Iran and the deficit. He, however, chose to repeatedly pick fights with the questions, arguing he shouldn’t have to answer “gotcha” questions.

The greatest failing in the debate was the failure to direct tough foreign policy questions at the top contenders. Inordinate time was given to Ron Paul, who argued Iran should be allowed nuclear weapons. However, in a positive sign, Tim Pawlenty, Michel Bachmann and Mitt Romney all gave answers eschewing isolationism. Romney specifically dinged Obama for setting a politically motivated timetable for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Who won? The frontrunner Romney who didn’t stumble. Bachmann was once again impressive. However, in insisting, for example that the debt ceiling didn’t need to be raised (a point effectively decimated by Rick Santorum), she left open questions as to whether she can exhibit sufficient gravitas. As for Palwenty, his effort seems virtually doomed. Nothing occurred to upset Bachmann’s path to victory on Saturday or to dislodge Romney from his top spot. He, frankly, as flawed as he is for some conservatives on health care, was the only one you could imagine holding his own on the stage with Obama. Rick Perry will have his work cut out for him.

More from PostOpinions:

Stromberg: The GOP debate in two minutes

Dionne: Perry, Huntsman, Romney win

Marcus: Gilligan’s GOP Island

Robinson: GOP Debate Land