The winners weren’t hard to spot at last night’s Republican presidential debate in Orlando. Rick Santorum gained media credibility with another solid debate performance. By landing real blows on the front-runner, he attracted more attention and performed well. He now has room to move up in the polls and attract some donors.

Mitt Romney wins because Texas Gov. Rick Perry, like Tim Pawlenty, blew it when he went head-to-head against Romney. Pawlenty struck out (refused to use the “ObamaneyCare” crack); Perry hit a dribbler back to the mound when he was supposed to be going after Romney. (It’s actually worse than I remembered it.)

But there were also winners beyond the stage.

The Iowa caucuses scored a victory. If Perry slides, Romney may decide to compete more seriously there. Why not? If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s likely home free. With Santorum gaining steam there is now another competitive social conservative to juice up the race.

Those favoring a Reaganesque foreign policy also came out on top. Santorum demanded victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. Romney stood up for Israel. There wasn’t enough discussion of national security, but there was some. It appears that any rumblings of isolationism in the GOP are being snuffed out. The “bring ’em home, cut defense” crowd is populated by nuts like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and other noncontenders, such as Jon Huntsman.

The word clouds, the video screen clutter and all the other Google/Fox bells and whistles lost. Big time. The excitement, if any, in a debate is generated not by the game-show-style stage, but by the rat-tat-tat between candidates and by (as in auto racing) the occasion collision and pile-up. Letting the audience ask the questions is generally a poor idea unless the other candidates can ask follow-ups or the moderator does. Otherwise it descends into a series of disjointed talking points. These debates need to de-clutter and lose most of the distracting technology.

Another loser: “If they fight among themselves only Obama wins.” That’s bunk. In a vigorous debate talent rises to the top. Candidates must improve, and the inept and loony get eliminated. If the GOP doesn’t vet its own candidates, President Obama certainly will.

The final loser, and this is good for all concerned, was crass rhetoric. Perry didn’t resort to incendiary rhetoric; rather, he succeeded in raising his tone. Newt Gingrich didn’t whine to the moderators about their questions. No one accused anyone else of treason or setting out to destroy America. Maybe the realization that the GOP could really win this thing is setting in, and with it an appropriate level of seriousness for the task at hand.