Last night’s candidate forum on Fox News Channel, hosted by Mike Huckabee, turned out to be a very pleasant surprise in many ways.  I confess that my expectations weren’t very high for some sort of experimental, alternate format, particularly after the Newt – Cain meeting last month. But Huckabee delivered one of the best, most useful meetings of the cycle in my opinion. There were no podiums and no food fights between the candidates. Each one was given an equal amount of time to answer questions from a group of Republican Attorneys General. Nobody got a series of softballs, no matter what some analysts seemed to think. The questions were fair, but probing, each set clearly designed to hit the candidates on their own specific records, past positions and statements.

NOTE: If you missed it, you can watch the entire thing online today at 2012 Election Central.

The panel consisted of Ken Cuccinelli, Pam Bondi and Scott Pruitt, and I felt they each did a professional job and were well prepared to grill the GOP hopefuls on pertinent issues. There was a complete and welcome absence of vanilla, generic questions which everyone had to answer in order, each trying to outspin the other with talking points. What was (thankfully) also missing was the sensationalist catnip of various scandals or gotcha questions, and the inevitable attempts to goad the candidates into attacking each other, along with the pointless pablum some other debates have offered. (Viewers remain blissfully unaware, for example, whether Congressman Ron Paul prefers boxers or briefs.)

As to the candidates themselves, this format seemed to bring out the best in almost all of them. (Or perhaps they’re all just getting used to being grilled by now… you be the judge.) Right down the line – with only a few exceptions – answers were crisp and on topic and should give voters a very good look at where they all stand.

Newt Gingrich led things off, and he got hit with some really tough questions. As usual, he responded to each one in a smooth, professorial fashion. Of course, the level of truth in a few of those answers will be up to the viewer to judge. One example was when he talked about his history on cap and trade, where he delivered a very scholarly answer which was quickly ripped apart by the Perry and Bachmann campaigns in a follow-up e-mail shortly after the forum ended. But all in all, Newt handled the questions – and the panel – in his usual style, tossing in deep, obscure details on policy and American history in large quantities and projecting a great level of confidence.

Rick Santorum went second, and he managed to deliver a very professional appearance as well. He stumbled a few times when pressed on domestic issues, with a bit of hemming and hawing as the panel pressed him repeatedly to get off his standard stump speech, but he got in some good points. I don’t think it was the kind of break out performance which is suddenly going to vault him out of the basement and into the lead, but he did very well.

Rick Perry‘s turn on the hot seat was yet another bright spot of the evening. Coming out of the gate he had a bit of a bad moment when he was questioned on his previous (and incorrect) assertion that Obamacare could be wiped off the face of the Earth with an executive order, but he clarified it fairly well by the time the exchange finished. The rest of his time turned out to be yet another very strong performance for Perry. He made a number of excellent points about the power of the states and the 10th amendment which he wove into the rest of his comments and it worked to excellent effect.

Mitt Romney didn’t implode last night, but of all the top tier contenders, I felt he turned in one of his weakest performances of the campaign. I didn’t note any glaring gaffes at the time which would light up the headlines all week, but Mitt seemed much more stumbling and unsure of himself than usual. I think it was the new format which threw him. Unlike normal debates where he can play off the comments of other candidates, get them to attack each other and have long breaks to collect his thoughts, he seemed to wilt under the relentless grilling. He gave his usual defenses when pressed on flip flopping, Romneycare and the usual litany of complaints against him, but he stuttered frequently and seemed flustered by the constant inquisition. Combined with his Fox interview on Wednesday, Mitt has had a pretty bad week.

Ron Paul mostly delivered his usual performance and answers, but for some reason he seemed really tired last night and, well.. kind of old. I think the strain of the campaign is beginning to wear on him.

Michele Bachmann got grilled pretty hard by the panel throughout her time on the stage. She maintained a calm, professional demeanor for the entire thing and didn’t seem to get tripped up, but a lot of her answers seemed rather vague when pressed with followup questions and she frequently fell back on her stump speech talking points. Pam Bondi seemed rather annoyed with her answers a couple of times, but maybe that was just my perception of her reaction shots.

Conclusion: All in all I found it to be something of a coin flip as to whether Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich had the best of the evening. Perry had better hope everyone took notice if he’s going to stage a comeback between now and Christmas. You can make the call for yourselves as to who got the best of it. The person with the most to lose last night was clearly Mitt Romney, and for perhaps the first time, he managed to lose at least some of it.I don’t expect any big movement from the rest of the field coming out of this.

But the real winners of the evening were Mike Huckabee and you, the viewers. It was a great event, delivering far above my admittedly low expectations, and Huck is to be congratulated for putting it together. More like this would keep the voters well informed and ready to make their choice as we enter the actual voting phase of the primaries.

Update (Jazz): Doug Mataconis has another take on the forum, but agrees that this format is very effective.