Along with roughly half the planet, I was tasked with composing an analysis of last night’s debate, which is published today over at Pajamas Media. In it, I do find time to go into the performances by the various candidates and draw some conclusions, but in reality I found one of the most pleasant surprises to be the delivery by Fox News. And I also have to remind myself that the debate we watched on television really has very little to do with tomorrow’s straw poll.

As I prepared to watch the GOP presidential debate in Iowa last night I was filled with a sense of trepidation, not for the performance of the candidates, but for the media. After the “whiner in the Carolinas” earlier this year I had begun to wonder if anyone was still capable of delivering a useful display of the candidates’ bona fides without relying on Tweets, YouTube videos, holographic correspondents, or product placement advertising. By the time it was done, I am pleased to report, at least a modicum of my faith in the broadcast networks had been restored.

Fox delivered an ably constructed package for primary voters around the nation. I will confess that their opening demand to “put aside the talking points” sounded like nothing more than a slogan, but the format and the frequently aggressive — sometimes too aggressive — lineup of questions succeeded in putting the presidential hopefuls through their paces.

Make no mistake: the debate itself was geared for the national audience of primary voters far more than the locals who will vote in the Ames straw poll this weekend. (The appearances by Romney and Huntsman should be adequate proof of that.) As Ed Morrissey pointed out recently, this spectacle comes down to retail politics in its oldest form. There may have been a few Iowans still on the fence who could have been shaken down by something they saw on the stage, but for the most part that’s simply not how the game is played in the Hawkeye State. The eventual winner will be determined by how many babies T-Paw kissed, how frequently mothers with small children were wrangled into Bachmann’s petting zoo, or how heartily Herman Cain managed to laugh when the 378th voter asked him if he could promise to fix the nation’s deficit, “in thirty minutes or less.”

After far too many gimmicky, glitzy smoke and mirrors affairs with fake “candid viewer input” it was nice to see them get back to a more direct, brawling, confrontational test of the contenders. Granted, until the herd gets thinned out significantly, these debates will never be completely satisfying. There’s simply too many people involved to give any one of them enough time to run free as we might like. But Fox managed to squeeze in quite a bit of action.

I’ve no doubt some complaints will remain about the line of questioning. There were more than a few shots fired by the moderators which some folks – including yours truly – might find unfair. These included Bachmann’s “submissive” issue, asking Huntsman if he was sure he shouldn’t be running as a Democrat and some needless jabs at Newt about his dysfunctional campaign. But in truth, the campaign trail is no place for the easily offended and all the candidates will have to be used to running into some sharp elbows.

Plus, the moderators didn’t restrict the candidates to one on one, dry run queries where they just spit their stump speeches back at the panel. The questioners intentionally drove the candidates into direct conflict with each other and loosened up the time limit rules to give them a chance to mix it up. I think that’s a more honest representation of the chops they’ll need to display in the general election.

I thought the whole thing was handled as well as it could have been under the circumstances. What I had originally feared would turn out to be a snoozer wound up drawing more than a little blood and the sparks were flying at a number of points. All in all I was satisfied. We need more events like that and less “video town halls.”