NBC’s David Gregory learned something from last night’s debate: Don’t ask inane questions on contraception and take up large chunks of the debate on issues GOP voters don’t care about. However, in a real way, his asking “process” questions aided Mitt Romney, who again escaped with nary a scratch.

The not-Romney candidates got the message from the punditocracy last night: You wimps! So they came how swinging at Romney. However, they were rather ineffective, in large part because they attacked on issues irrelevant to Republican primary voters. Newt Gingrich, back in nasty Newt mode, said it was “pious baloney” that Romney wasn’t a career politician because he couldn’t get re-elected as governor and tried but failed to beat Ted Kennedy. HUH? If he was unpopular, it was because his record was more conservative that the liberal Bay State could tolerate (this doesn’t hurt Romney in this race). More to the point, who cares? It was not a topic that is going to undermine voters’ support for Romney in a presidential primary. Likewise, the whiny Jon Huntsman attacked Romney for criticizing him last night for serving as ambassador to China instead of working to help elect Republicans. HUH? In a GOP primary, that’s a winning argument.

The early and ineffective attacks left Romney to sail through the rest of the debate unmarred. Again, no one seriously quibbled with Romneycare or on a point that will alienate Republican primary voters.

But it is a mistake to attribute Romney’s success in these things to his opponents’ ineptness (although there is plenty of the latter). He is a deft politician. His view on gay rights — he defended his position on nondiscrimination — defused a hostile question from a local reporter who meant to imply that Romney had been hypocritical. Romney used his Massachusetts experience to explain how he can work with Democrats. He got in a shot at public-employee unions, a winner with conservative voters.

But it was in his counterpunching that he was most successful. Gingrich got fussy about the negative ads from the Romney superPAC. Romney ticked off the charges (dumped by the GOP House from the speakership, did an ad with Nancy Pelosi, got a jumbo fine for ethics violations, slammed Rep Paul Ryan on Medicare), making crystal clear that the ads , while negative, are true. When confronted about his time in politics, he turned it around and slammed those who’d been in Washington, D.C., and stayed on to lobby, a knock on both Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

In responding to Huntsman’s hissy fit about Romney's attack on his service in the Obama administration, Romney calmly twisted the knife, saying the best service to the country is working to get rid of President Obama. In a primary contest, that is a winning argument.

Romney was also aided by his rivals’ decision to spend the last hour of the debate attacking one another or defending their own records. Moreover, the strongest performance among his rivals was turned in by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is at the bottom of the New Hampshire polls. If he gets any lift, it is likely to be at the expense of other not-Romney candidates. Back-to-back solid debate performances from Perry may also revive his fortunes in South Carolina, posing a problem for Santorum, who now seems to have plateaued in the polls.

Perry’s answers were generally crisp and on the money. To the laughter of the crowd he finally ticked off those three agencies he would do away with. He was relaxed but not sleepy.

Santorum had a mixed outing. He gave very solid answers on Iran (explaining why mutual assured destruction is ineffective with martyrs) and on his debt-cutting measures (e.g., Medicaid block granting). When asked how he would react to his son telling him he is gay, he instantaneously said he would love him just as much after being told as before.

But he had some significant stumbles, the worst being his defense of his no vote on right-to-work legislation because he represented a non-right-to-work state. HUH? He’s supposed to be against compulsory union membership and to believe turning Pennsylvania into a right-to-work state would be good for it. He also seemed apologetic for voting for Medicare Part D without including a funding mechanism, although he did point out the pro-market elements of the that vote. However, he again took too much time arguing with Ron Paul, accusing him of not accomplishing anything in Congress. In future debates, he will need to ignore the other rivals and focus on substance, not process, in going after Romney.

Gingrich had moments of clarity, such as his remarks on energy policy, but more often than not he seemed peevish. He whined about Romney’s negative ads and slipped up when he told Romney about his superPAC’s plans to run an anti-Bain film, featuring citations from Barron’s, the New York Times and The Washington Post. That won him no points with conservative voters and moreover suggested he’d gotten an advanced peek at a superPAC, his involvement in which is legally barred.

Huntsman was able to speak at greater length on his economic plan. His appeal to bipartisanship may have some resonance with independent voters. But his manner is so off-putting and his voice so annoying that it is hard to see how further exposure helps him.

Finally, Ron Paul played the Michele Bachmann role in this debate, breaking up the serial attacks on Romney early in the debate and pleading for substantive questions. He gave his isolationist pitch and generally stuck to his libertarian strong suit, eliminating most of what the federal government does.

Winners: David Gregory, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry

Losers: ABC moderators (entirely shown up by Gregory), Newt Gingrich