Time to hand out some grades from the final GOP debate before voting begins.
Mitt Romney = A
I just finished watching him on Hannity's show, and he seemed absolutely delighted about the debate -- praising the questions and generally looking like an inmate who'd just been allowed to walk out, freely, to the Greyhound bus station because he'd showed the prison guard a Monopoly "Get out of jail free" card.
It was that easy? Really? He seemed to be saying.
For the first time, the others treated him like the front-runner he no longer was, and perhaps because of that, he emerged the front-runner, once again.
In previous debates, guys like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were even or ahead of him in polls, but everyone still went after Mitt.
But not last night.
He was -- if only for one night -- Rick Santorum. And, ah, to be Rick Santorum in Iowa.
Romney cruised through his answers, only looking tense during an exchange with Chris Wallace over his position on gay rights. He finished the testy exchange by offering an unprompted "Thank you" to Wallace, which sounded more like a "Shut up now, will you?" and Wallace quickly did shut up.
But Mitt didn't win just because he could rest in peace (in the non-death way) for long stretches, without having RomneyCare continually thrown in his face.
He offered convincing answers and, most encouragingly for Republicans, showed that he'd be ready for the onslaught of Democratic attacks over his time at Bain Capital.
Democrats will, of course, demonize his work there, but as Mitt noted, both life and the free market is full of cold, hard facts.
You don't run attack ads against hospitals just because people die there (In fact, I think Romney should start comparing himself to a hospital from here on out and talk about the fact that sometimes you try to save someone or something, but it doesn't work out and they die, while others go on to write great operas).
I still don't think Romney will win Iowa, but if he can keep it close and stay somewhere in the 15%-20% range, he'll be fine everywhere else in the country.
Newt Gingrich = B
His outsized belly and outstretched arms were the center of the debate for the first quarter, and while he didn't make any obvious flubs, you never want to have to explain why you're different from Barney Frank in a GOP primary.
And Gingrich, thanks to Bachmann, got caught up in technicalities that no one really cares about.
Politically-speaking, it doesn't really matter what Gingrich actually was. He could be a Newt and if he just slithered in and out of Fannie and Freddie because he lived under some bark next to a building, he'd still get hit.
The danger of Fannie and Freddie is the $1.6 million he got from it, and the fact that it threatens his outsider/tea party/non-establishment image. People don't care how he got the money. He got it.
That being said, he rallied in the debate's second half, but the big question is whether people already went to bed or had already written their stories and didn't want to revise them.
He was strongest in his attacks on the judiciary, which plays well among Iowa evangelicals, who worry about eager-beaver judges viewing themselves as idealistic interns with really great costumes.
And if you remember, back in 2010, he was fairly vocal in supporting the successful effort to oust the state Supreme Court justices who voted to recognize gay marriage and were up for reelection. That counts.
One more thing -- while Romney and others might be aghast at Newt's bombast or moral clarity (depending on your ideology) on foreign policy -- particularly Israel -- that's profoundly important to the evangelicals dominating Iowa's caucuses.
Israel, with its prophetic implications, is a big deal to Christian conservatives.
So overall, Gingrich had some things going for and against him last night. He didn't scuttle his chances in Iowa, but he didn't help them, and he starts the final pre-Iowa stretch with a small lead in Iowa, but probably not a big enough one to carry over to New Hampshire.
Rick Perry = C+
His debate arc is sort of like The Office's new character, Robert Kalifornia.
Everyone was excited about him coming into primary season, but then he showed himself to be not nearly as good as advertised, but we all kept waiting for a better episode where Kalifornia actually fulfilled his potential.
With time, we all thought Kalifornia's handlers (some of the top in the business) would figure out how to exploit that potential until we looked up at the clock, the season was almost over, and we realized that Erin was the best thing on the show.
I have no idea why twitter was abuzz last night with Perry's performance.
There were the pessimist Perry fans (if only he could have been like this earlier!) and the optimists (the real voting hasn't begun!), but he didn't seem any more adept at explaining policy or even showing that he understood it last night.
He just seemed to care a little more, instead of brushing everything aside, like before, with the ennui of a European film but none of the subtlety.
Having said that, I think Perry is genuinely on the move in Iowa -- not because campaigns (including his own) have a vested interest in leaking polls with no hard numbers attached but just the sense of movement, and not because some published polls show a bit of improvement.
Instead, I think he started to rise in Iowa when he released his "war on religion" ad, which might have gone largely unnoticed except for the huge backlash against it by people who can't vote in Iowa, which provoked people who can vote to resent being told that they were anti-gay, hatemongers because of a military policy that Bill Clinton supported.
Perry is going for broke in Iowa, and with all the debates out of the way, he can do full-time what he does best -- retail.
I'd just say this to the "Tim Tebow of Iowa": Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are still better... and you're playing the Patriots on Sunday.
Michele Bachmann = B
If you measure debates by how well you annoy and damage others, Bachmann gets an A+.
If you measure debates by how well you endear and help yourself, she gets a C.
Bachmann is very good on the attack and when she's not talking wildly about "government injections" for girls, she's precise and effective.
But she still hasn't figured out how to be for something and not just against everything.
Expect her to ramp up the attacks during these final weeks before Iowa, and therefore, expect her to (about two weeks from now) hurt herself by getting too feisty and saying something like -- "Newt Romney wants to take Mothers Day away" or "Newt Romney want Vivid Entertainment to take over Pixar."
Ron Paul = D+
He was finally treated like a serious candidate, and did some serious damage to his hopes as he spent a lot of time talking about Iran.
Essentially, Paul argues that Iran is like a former boy band member who just wants his own album so he can finally get some respect.
And as I've said before, your view on Paul's foreign policy hinges on whether you think Iran is more like Jordan Knight or whether you think it wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.
Again, Jordan Knight, Ahmadinejad. Jordan Knight, Ahmadinejad. Your call.
In fact, is it just me or does he think the Federal Reserve is more dangerous than Iran?
The others, including the moderators, finally decided to press him on this, and they sicced Rick Santorum on him, which is never too pleasant.
Jon Huntsman = C
Rumors of his rise were greatly exaggerated, and his uneven, passive-aggressive performance was exactly like all his others this cycle.
There were a few, fundamental problems with the idea that Huntsman was going to surge.
1. Newt only surged because he was a good debater. Huntsman has been at all the same debates and was never the story afterword, except for his bad jokes.
The part, last night, where he hit Donald Trump's debate was illustrative because it showed both his bad timing at delivering jokes (the halting, uneven cadence), and literally, his bad timing, considering Trump is no longer even going to be at his own debate.
So bringing it up showed, even more transparently, that he loved the idea of Trump's debate only so he could act like he hated it.
2. He's not conservative. Sure, he's unveiled some very conservative plans, but people forget that even Charlie Crist did some awfully conservative things, but turned on it when it became politically convenient.
Those who knew Crist never trusted him, ideologically, and remember -- Huntsman was more beloved by Democrats in Utah than conservatives.
As of this summer, his favorability rating with Democrats in the state was 69%/25%; whereas with Republicans it was 44%/44% and with conservatives, it was a terrible 29%/61%.
And there's one more thing -- national conservatives, who desperately want him to be a conservative alternative to Newt Romney, often note how he essentially gave the base a middle finger when he rolled out his campaign. Bad strategy, they say. Yes, and very revelatory. If he's willing to diss the base in a primary, what about a general election or when he's president?
He could still be a factor in New Hampshire, but only in the way Ron Paul is a factor in Iowa -- enough to rock the boat, but not enough to take over the ship.
UPDATE: I forgot to grade Santorum even though I touched on him. His performance was indistinguishable from past ones. He attacks and speaks well, but still hasn't offered a compelling vision of what he wants to do, and is essentially a less riveting but slightly more serious version of Bachmann. B- for him.