The Republican candidate held their first debate in weeks last night, a forum dedicated to economic policy hosted by CNBC’s John Harwood and Maria Bartiromo, and for the most part they seemed to have improved with the time off.  For the first hour or so of the debate, everyone seemed sharp, with crisp answers and very little to criticize.  Even Rick Perry seemed to have improved — and then, one of the worst moments in decades of major political debates took place when Perry got lost on an easy listing of Cabinet-level agencies he wants to eliminate.  Worst of all, the one he couldn’t recall despite nearly 30 seconds of stammering was the Department of Energy, a key area on which Perry has based his economic policy.

The moderation in this debate was perhaps the worst since John King’s “This or That?”  Harwood and Bartiromo were mostly capable, but they decided to insert a question to Herman Cain about the allegations of sexual harassment that has roiled his campaign.  That question was perfectly legitimate — for an interview or a press conference.  It has nothing to do with economics, and it’s hardly a debating point for the other candidates on stage.  The audience booed with great relish all through the delivery of the question, and rightfully so.  Cain’s denial generated loud cheers, which turned to boos when Bartiromo asked Romney to comment on Cain’s answer — which Romney firmly refused to do, and insisted that the debate return to its topic.

On top of that derailment, the beginning and end of the debate featured Jim Cramer screaming at the candidates, especially at the end.  Note to CNBC — we’re watching the candidates debate each other.  If Cramer can’t figure that out, then he doesn’t belong on stage, and perhaps your network shouldn’t be hosting these debates at all.

How did the candidates do?

  • Herman Cain — Cain always handles himself well in these debates, and last night was no exception.  The crowd got behind him after getting sandbagged, and Cain kept them with him most of the night.  However, he seemed to drift through some answers without actually providing a clear response specific to the question, and the audience began laughing rather than cheering when he brought up 9-9-9 on the third or fourth mention.  He didn’t offer anything memorable, but he certainly didn’t do any damage to himself last night.
  • Mitt Romney — Besides stumbling a bit through an answer on health care, Romney had another good night.  He offered very strong responses, demonstrated a good grasp of the issues, and remained positive throughout the debate.  Only one candidate attacked him, and that was ….
  • Jon Huntsman — Huntsman’s only memorable moment of the debate came when he made a general accusation of “pandering” with get-tough-on-China rhetoric.  Harwood asked Hunstman to confront Romney if he thought Romney (who had just said he’d get tough on China) was one of those pandering.  It took three more pushes from Harwood to get Huntsman to stammer out an attack on Romney in what looked very much like a replay of the Tim Pawlenty “Obamneycare” flop in an earlier debate.  If that’s your only really memorable moment in a debate, that’s not a good thing.  Overall Huntsman did a credible job, but he didn’t do or say anything to distinguish himself.
  • Ron Paul — Paul did surprisingly well, but this was a debate on economics, where Paul makes a lot of sense.  He gave a couple of outstanding answers, especially one on student-loan debt where he offered his surprise to the framing of a question that assumed student loans made sense.  The crazy rants and the isolationism were all left off stage, and Paul gave the best debate of the series.
  • Rick Perry — The excruciating flop literally came just as I was typing into Tweetdeck how well Perry had been doing in this debate.  Before and even after the Moment That Will Live In Ignominy, Perry seemed to have finally figured out how to debate.  He was relaxed without being soporific, made salient and specific points on policy, stayed positive and focused on his own record and proposals, and if he still wasn’t terrific, he was no longer bad.  Until … he was, and then he was simply horrid.  I don’t think it’s enough to make a man with millions in the bank leave the race, but no one who watched that sequence can possibly have any confidence in his ability to debate Barack Obama.  At all.  If Perry had a track record of four good debate performances, this would not be damaging enough to kill his chances, but his previous flops make this seem as though it’s the Sum Of All (Republican) Fears.
  • Michele Bachmann — A good performance, but not anything that will cause voters who have already moved past Bachmann to take a second look.  No hyperbole this time, no wild unsupportable claims, just a series of good-but-not-memorable responses.
  • Rick Santorum — Very much like Bachmann, another good-but-not-memorable performance.  Some Twitter followers complained when Santorum began doing his I’ve-done-this-and-they-haven’t checklist, but otherwise he was just serviceable.  He’ll do better in the foreign-policy debate that will take place later this month.

That leaves us with Newt Gingrich, who clearly won the debate — but also gave flashes of his weak points.  Gingrich gave marvelously detailed answers, reflecting the deep study he has made on American public policy during his years in politics, and demonstrated that he has the best command of both facts and philosophy on stage.  Gingrich also went after the moderators especially hard, perhaps protesting too much at the 30-second limit for one of his answers, badgering Bartiromo until she agreed to let him take all the time he wanted.  He showed flashes of derision towards Bartiromo and Harwood that didn’t bother the red-meat conservatives he wants to woo now, but that may not sell as well in a general election.  Gingrich has been very careful to be patient, positive, and supporting of his fellow Republicans, and that continued last night as well.  He will have to find a way to project that statesman-like persona with the media as well, like it or not, especially if he wins the nomination, in order to avoid the angry-conservative-man image that Gingrich has had to fight in the past.