Last night, I had nearly a ringside seat to the GOP debate — once removed. The media filing center was actually in an entirely separate building on the Drake University campus; in fact, it was in the basketball arena. We had the live feed from the center, and later some of us (including myself) had access to the Spin Room, where campaign surrogates make the argument for their candidate as the victor in the debate. There was one notable exception to that custom, which I will note shortly.

Before we get to the spin, though, let’s assess the debate.  The moderation in this debate was decidedly substandard, especially from Diane Sawyer, who kept reminding candidates to stick to the time rules just before launching into interminable narratives that eventually produced questions.  The nadir of this experience was Sawyer recalling her encounter with a Real Live Iowa Pharmacist as a set-up to ask whether government should force people to give up their bad habits.  George Stephanopoulos was better, probably because he spends more time in dealing with political questions, but there was a spit-take moment when the former Bill Clinton staffer asked all of the Republican candidates whether infidelity was a disqualification for office.

Uh, we’ll get back to you on that one, George.

The questioning for most of the night seemed clearly aimed at Gingrich — his past statements, his personal life, and his record.  Gingrich did well in handling the questions, forgoing his usual dressing down of the moderators on a night where it was clearly in order.  He parried an attack from Mitt Romney that began clumsily and ended badly for Romney.  Gingrich didn’t back away from his controversial remarks on Palestinians, getting into one of the more interesting exchanges of the evening with Romney on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which briefly took a turn for the silly when the two argued which of them knew Bibi Netanyahu better.

Romney, however, made the gaffe of the evening when he attacked Rick Perry, of all people.  Until now, Romney has been very careful not to punch below his class, but Perry got under his skin and Romney ended up going after Perry on Gardasil all over again.  He didn’t do it well, either, and when Perry attacked Romney over statements in his book regarding health care, Romney tried to intimidate Perry by challenging him to bet $10,000 over the issue.  If Romney wanted to make himself look rich, arrogant, and clueless, he could hardly have done a better job.  When was the last time someone challenged you to a ridiculous bet in order to intimidate you out of an argument?  For me, I think it was junior-high school.

Perry, on the other hand, had his best debate in the campaign.  He was focused, relaxed, assertive, funny, and only occasionally seemed to need to reach for a phrase.  He stayed fully energetic throughout the entire evening.  If this Perry had been on stage in September, Newt Gingrich would be an afterthought.  I’m not sure that Perry has enough credibility to get another chance in Iowa, but he could hardly have done any more to argue for one.

Michele Bachmann also had a good debate.  She started referring to “Newt Romney” to tie the two frontrunners together, which led to a silly defensive response from Romney about how different he is from Gingrich. (Gingrich ignored the stunt and focused on rebutting Bachmann on a factual basis, which was not one of Bachmann’s better moments.)  Once again, she avoided hyperbole and wisely passed on a chance to jump back into the Gardasil/Government Needle debate.  However, she twice embraced the same 9-9-9 plan she previously called 6-6-6 (because “the devil is in the details”) in a rather threadbare attempt to pander to Herman Cain’s former supporters.

Rick Santorum also had his best debate in the campaign.  Later in the Spin Room, he told Kerry Picket that his family had told him to loosen up, and the difference was noticeable.  He took his opportunities to offer thoughtful responses on foreign policy and gave the best answer to Stephanopoulos’ question on infidelity.  Santorum needs a game-changer in Iowa, and I’m not sure this was it, but it was an excellent performance and one he could possibly use to make a case for the social-conservative vote.

Ron Paul was about the same as he usually is, although for some reason he seemed more cantankerous than usual.  It’s a superficial observation, but his suit didn’t fit well, and contributed to an out-of-sorts image.  He had some good answers, though, and didn’t do anything to damage himself.

Later, I took a little video in the Spin Room.  Unlike the rest of the candidates, Santorum represented himself, as he usually does in the post-debate media engagement.  There is not much to be gleaned from this except to see how the campaigns handle the post-debate questioning.  I got to speak to Rep. McEwen (Gingrich) at more length; I only asked the Bachmann proxy one question (about Bachmann’s flip on 9-9-9), and didn’t get to ask Santorum or Romney’s proxy any questions at all.  Enjoy.