The last Republican presidential debate of 2011 is in the books. It was a remarkably sedate affair with the frontrunning candidates — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — playing it safe and staying away from any direct attacks on one another.

Republican presidential candidate former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) listens to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (L) during the Republican Party presidential candidates debate in Sioux City, Iowa, December 15, 2011. REUTERS/Eric Gay/Pool

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* Michele Bachmann: Bachmann is an underrated — or maybe just overlooked — debater. Since a lull in the early fall, she’s been very solid in these forums, and put together a strong performance tonight.

For second tier candidates — like Bachmann — debates are about fighting for air time and drawing contrasts with the frontrunners. She did both.

Bachmann slammed Texas Rep. Ron Paul for his position on Iran and hammered Gingrich for taking money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. She also was forceful — and effective — when she lashed out at Gingrich for repeatedly acting dismissively toward her. A nice night for Bachmann.

* Rick Perry: Given the Texas Governor’s disastrously bad past debate performances, it’s always tough to know if you are grading him on a curve. But, for the second straight debate, Perry was energetic and forceful. He stayed on his outsider message — part time Congress etc. — and only very occasionally drifted into the he’s-saying-words-but-they-don’t-mean-anything territory.

Was his line about being the “Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses” a little forced? Um, yes. But still, it’s likely to be one of the most quoted lines in the post debate coverage and that’s a good thing for Perry.

* Mitt Romney: For the first 90 minutes of the debate, Romney was at his very best. After going after Gingrich last Saturday, Romney seemed to scrap that strategy, using every question asked of him to paint himself as three things: 1) a big picture thinker and 2) the anti-Obama 3) the de facto nominee.

The hiccup came when moderator Chris Wallace pushed Romney on his alleged flip flops on things like abortion, gay rights and guns. Romney started off well — he acknowledged he had “changed his mind” on abortion — but then got too into the weeds with an extended discussion of why his position on gay rights had been consistent. Not good.

Still, taken as a whole, Romney reasserted himself in this debate and , because he came under virtually no criticism, was able to effectively portray himself as the guy most ready to take on President Obama next fall.

* Tim Tebow: All he does is win. Also, we are Tebowing as we write this.


* Ron Paul: The Texas Congressman spent WAY too much time defending his isolationist foreign policy views — including his belief that the biggest danger Iran posed to America was if the next president “overreacted”. Bachmann effectively bashed Paul — she said she had “never heard a more dangerous answer” than he gave on Iran — and the Texas Republican, as is his nature, unhelpfully doubled down on his position.

We’ve written before that if Paul talked exclusively about economic/domestic policy he could well be a top tier candidate. But, he simply won’t/can’t avoid airing his foreign policy views, which are badly out of step with the average Republican primary/caucus voter.

Of course, Paul’s supporters love him for it. (These same people will jam the Fix email inbox with complaints about our wrongheaded analysis of Dr. Paul’s performance.) But are there enough hardcore Paul-ites to deliver him a win in Iowa?

* Newt Gingrich: Gingrich’s first hour in this debate was not good. He got caught in a philosophical discussion about government sponsored enterprises — GSE’s — that allowed his opponents to swing away on him taking lots and lots of money from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. He tried to save himself by drawing a distinction between consulting and lobbying that average people just don’t grasp.

Gingrich also seemed peevish at times. Clearly bothered by Romney’s critique of him over the last few days, he acknowledged he was trying not to be “zany” and was editing himself so as to not sound too heated rhetorically. His disregard for Bachmann, which he always seems to keep barely hidden below the surface, was evident tonight and not helpful.

Gingrich, to his credit, did bounce back in the second hour and seemed to win the audience back on his side. But his second hour wasn’t good enough to make up for a first hour that leaves plenty of opportunities for his opponents to attack in the final two and a half weeks before Iowa.

* The Gchat noise: The cable networks need to come together and pick a better “time is up” noise going forward. Our suggestion: A few bars of “The End” by the Beatles. Or Jim Morrison crooning: “This is the only friend...the end”.

* Drama: This was a debate almost entirely devoid of any major moments. There was no memorable exchange, no big mistake. Most of the candidates were content to stay within their stump speeches, avoiding much direct interaction with their opponents. Maybe they just were tired of debating so much.


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