It’s all over but the spinning at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa where six Republican presidential candidates duked it out earlier this evening.
* Newt Gingrich: The former House Speaker seems to be adjusting nicely to his newfound frontrunner status. While he’s long been one of the best natural debaters in the field, Gingrich seemed to be genuinely working to avoid coming off as a smarter-than-thou intellectual. He had his moments — League of Nations! — but overall the image he gave off was of a more approachable, kinder Newt. (The lone obvious exception was when he sought to push back on an attack from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann; Gingrich walked right up to the line of being condescending and insulting on that one but didn’t cross it.) The best example? His well rehearsed but nonetheless very well delivered response on whether his three marriages raised questions about his character. Gingrich was remorseful without being maudlin — striking just the right tone on a very tough question for him.
* Michele Bachman n: We tweeted out during our live-blog coverage that Bachmann is a sneaky good debater. And she showed it again tonight. Her “Newt Romney” construct was smart — the two frontunners spent 5 minutes trying to prove her wrong — and she made an appealing case as the true-blue conservative in the field. Her appeal for supporters of former candidate Herman Cain — “how about that “9-9-9 plan, am I right?!” was totally transparent, which means it just might work. Bachmann’s debate performance proved that her problem isn’t message — it’s raising the money to get the message out.
* Rick Perry: Let’s stipulate this: Perry is simply not the debater that Gingrich, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or even Bachmann is. But, he acquitted himself well tonight starting with his first answer on jobs, which was solid and convincing. Perry also landed some of the hardest punches against both Gingrich (“If you cheat on your wife, you will cheat on your business partner”) and Romney (on health care/individual mandate). The Texas governor did occasionally make up a word or appear to get lost when making his point but those were few and far between — particularly when compared to his past debate performances. If Perry is genuinely starting to move up in Iowa, he didn’t hurt that ascent tonight and may have even helped himself a bit.
* Smaller debate size: With only six people on stage — sorry Jon Huntsman! — the debate felt more like a conversation where candidates could not only make their points but also talk out their differences without constantly being obsessed with how much time they had to talk. If you were an undecided voter watching tonight’s proceedings, you almost certainly came away from the debate knowing more about where the candidates stand (and the differences between them). And that’s a good thing.
* Third person references: With Cain out of the race, Chris Cillizza was worried that there might not be enough third-person references in the debate. Luckily, Chris Cillizza had nothing to worry about as Perry and Bachmann — to name just two — repeatedly made reference to themselves in the third person. That made Chris Cillizza smile.
* Mitt Romney: This is the first time in the 2012 debates that the former Massachusetts governor has wound up in the loser’s circle. While he wasn’t bad, he also wasn’t nearly as good — in terms of thinking on his feet and message discipline — as he has been in the past. He also made a rare but likely costly unforced error when he asked Perry to wager $10,000 about who was more right about his position on the individual mandate. Some people may roll their eyes and insist that a line like that doesn’t matter but in times of considerable economic anxiety it will be used to make Romney look out of touch. (Remember George H.W. Bush not knowing how much a loaf of bread cost?) Romney also seemed divided on how hard to go after Gingrich. He did so when moderator George Stephanapoulos prompted him but seemed slightly hesitant to do it. Add it all up and you have Romney’s worst debate performance so far this year.
* Republican establishment: For all of those folks predicting (or hoping) that Gingrich would implode, tonight was not their night. Make no mistake: there are genuine concerns within the party about what Gingrich leading the national ticket might mean for downballot race next November. But Gingrich gave his detractors very little reason to think that his collapse is in the offing.
* Saturday night debates: The Fix is, obviously, not a wild and crazy guy. But, a two-hour debate on a Saturday night? Come on! (Also, we had to DVR “The Marinovich Project” and we had really been looking forward to watching that.)