The 18th — yes, eighteenth! — debate of the Republican presidential primary ended after most reasonable people had already gone to bed on Monday night.

Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul take part in The Republican Presidential Debate at University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, January 23, 2012. Florida will hold its Republican primary on January 31, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand

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* Rick Santorum: The former Pennsylvania Senator is in a very tough spot in the race. He’s not part of the battle for frontrunner status — that’s between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — nor does he have the loyal following of Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

But if Santorum is in a political no man’s land, he didn’t show it last night. While he got far less time to speak than either Romney or Gingrich — a right decision by moderator Brian Williams given their relative standing in the polls — Santorum made the most with what he had.

As he had done in the debates last week, Santorum repeatedly attempted to lump Gingrich and Romney together as Obama-lite while presenting himself as the genuine conservative article.

In his best answer of the night — and the best overall answer from any candidate all night — Santorum detailed the apostasies of Gingrich and Romney on health care and climate change before adding: “They rejected conservatism when it was hard to stand.”

It remains to be seen whether Santorum’s strong debate can or will matter since the race is rapidly shaping up as a fight between Gingrich and Romney. But Santorum did everything he could Monday night to stay relevant.

* Mitt Romney: Was Romney as polished and smooth as he has been in most of the other debates? Nope. But he had a very different mission on Monday night than in the past gatherings — he was set on landing a series of body blows to Gingrich that will eventually, Romney and his team hope, weaken the former House Speaker.

It was a workmanlike performance from Romney; he hammered away at Gingrich’s record as speaker (he said “resign in disgrace” three times in as many minutes) and sought to force Gingrich on the defensive about what exactly he had done to earn $1.6 million from Freddie Mac.

There was no knockout blow. That much is true. But for a guy who struggled badly — both in this campaign and his 2008 race — to go on attack, Romney handled himself well and, without question, softened Gingrich up some for the race to come.

One weak spot worth noting: Romney was, again, somewhat shaky on his tax returns answer — repeatedly highlighting that he had paid all of the taxes he was “legally” obligated to pay. Um, ok.

* Floridians: Most of these debates have been set in early voting states but have rarely spent much time on the actual issues of import to voters in those states. Not so during Monday night’s debate.

Illegal immigration, environmental regulations, sugar, the space program and even Terri Schiavo(!) came up for discussion, forcing the candidates to stretch beyond their typical talking points and make their case for why they are the best fit for Florida specifically.

While the extended sugar debate was a little much — more on that below — we thoroughly enjoyed some state-specific questions, particularly from the one and only Adam Smith of the Tampa Times.

* The first 15 minutes: Like the CNN debate last Thursday, the first 15 minutes of Monday’s night set-to was where all the excitement happened. Romney repeatedly attacked Gingrich while the former House Speaker seemingly fought against himself to appear calm and unflappable.

But, after those 15 minutes, things slowed down considerably.

It’s almost as if the candidates — like racehorses — are so amped up for the debate that when the thing actually starts, they rush out out the gate ready to run. Within 20 minutes though, their initial excitement is gone and they begin to slow in preparation for the longer race to come.

How’s THAT for horserace reporting? Zing!

* “Cane sugar hides behind beet sugar”: Yes, yes it does.


* The last 90 minutes: After the fireworks on the front end, the candidates seemed to retreat into their corners and avoided taking shots at one another for the rest of the night.

Romney likely figured he had done what he needed to do while the audience numbers were at their highest and Gingrich was very clearly trying to stay away from the sort of red-meat rhetoric that had defined his rise in the polls of late.

That plus the heavy policy focus of many of the questions — particularly the Florida-only section — made for a meaty final hour and a half. But it wasn’t the sort of rock’em, sock’em affair many people expected.

* Audience silence: After decidedly raucous — probably too raucous — debate audiences in both of last week’s presidential debates, the stony silence in which the audience in Tampa sat was vaguely unnerving.

On the one hand, it allowed the candidates more time to talk, which is a good thing. On the other, these debates are, at the end of the day, performance art of a sort so a little bit of audience participation tends to make them more fun.

* Saul Alinsky: Not one mention of the famous/infamous community organizer from Gingrich. To quote Gob Bluth: “Come on!”