Mitt Romney was the clear winner of this debate. He won simply by staying out of the fray and had the luxury of remaining calm and smiling as the others went on the attack. None of the other candidates were willing to directly attack Romney when the opportunities were there and only took a swat or two at him.
The first hour of the debate was devoted to such incredibly silly questions such as the right of citizens to use contraception. I kid you not. Trying to get all the candidates to answer crazy questions about religious or personal beliefs in the context of political decisions was straight out of the Democrats play book to make Republicans look like religious zealots or out of touch extremists.
On the contraception question, Romney shined. Instead of getting into the weeds of legal rulings, he joked about the absurdity of the exercise.
But instead of launching into a legalistic discourse, Romney was incredulous at the question. "I mean, the idea of you putting forward things that... no state wants to do and asking me whether they could do it or not is kind of a silly thing, I think." Romney said he of course wouldn't vote to ban contraception (which is Santorum's ultimate position), and then went on to blast judicial activism and argue that judges should not "stuff" rights into the Constitution that don't exist.
There were no real discussions of jobs programs, entitlement reform or the path forward for our nation economically. The only foreign policy questioning occurred as the candidates spoke about troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Iraq, Rick Perry said he would send troops back into that country. A clear mistake, his campaign spokesperson later said the governor meant he would place troops strategically in the country to protect against Iranian interference.
Governor Huntsman broke out the Mandarin towards the end of the debate. A former Ambassador to China, he was stressing the importance of our place in the world and that isolationism is not a good policy. Conservative pundits mocked him, and no doubt it didn't win over any voters, but I thought it was amusing nonetheless.
Ron Paul was strong in standing his ground on Constitutional issues. He and Newt Gingrich had a back and forth on military matters. Paul declared he went to do his military service when he was drafted, despite being married and having two children at the time. Gingrich, who used deferment to avoid serving during the Vietnam war, boasted of being an Army brat and his father's career service in the Army.
None of the candidates said anything to force an error from Romney. Santorum was strong but he will need to maintain his performance in the coming debates and not slide back into his whining or snarling manner seen in previous debates.