Conor Rogers, Editor
Washington, D.C.

Candidates aside, Fox News’ reputation as a journalistic enterprise was probably the most clear winner in last night’s debate. It’s no coincidence that only weeks after News Corp’s international scandal, Murdoch’s highest profile US property took the GOP candidates to task in a no-nonsense cross-examination.

After GOP primary-watchers and DC political junkies were forced to sit through CNN’s painful “Coke or Pepsi” debate last time around, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace’s hard-hitters on everything from Herman Cain’s racism to Michele Bachmann’s “submission” to her husband finally cut the winners apart from the losers in the GOP primary field. With Jon Huntsman on stage, we’re finally only one candidate shot of the full lot of candidates.

BIGGEST WINNER: Newt Gingrich.

Finally, Newt Gingrich reminded us all why he’s on stage. Gingrich showcased his legislative acumen, and ditched platitudes about “getting regulation out of the way” in favor of direct appeals to repeal Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank. Newt’s “moment” was his absolute take-down of the Super Committee. Rather than just rail against the idea — as many Republicans have — Gingrich proposed a clear alternative that simply made sense: tasking every subcommittee with cutting a flat percent out of their sector of government. Propped up against Michele Bachmann’s chime-ins about “leading the fight,” Gingrich looked like the seasoned veteran he is.

Finally, Gingrich cut the stop-the-gays-and-sharia-law crap and returned to his policy wonk self. Heads up, Gingrich is back.

WON BY DEFAULT: Mitt Romney.

All Mitt Romney had to do last night was stand there and look good (something he’s immeasurably good at) and not screw anything up. Not only did Romney remain unscathed by Pawlenty or Bachmann, he carved himself as a rational defender of the 10th amendment amidst a Santorum-Paul spat, he closed out the debate with a clear line of attack against Barack Obama and didn’t once address any of his GOP rivals — besides praising Herman Cain’s business business expertise.

HONORABLE MENTION: Jon Huntsman Jr.

This debate was Huntsman’s introduction to the country, and he defended himself well against accusations that he’s too liberal for the Republican Party. His statements about serving your country, no matter who is President resonates with many Americans — and a specific, candidate-less group of Republicans in the center-right. Huntsman’s “moment” was a sober assessment of what a default would have meant for the U.S. and the world economy. Huntsman’s unquestionable honestly in responses about his work with Barack Obama and his support for same-sex civil unions helped him stick out as straight-shooter among panderers. Though his honestly may be too moderate for this Tea Party climate, he’s established himself as a young and important GOP voice for the future.

BIGGEST LOSER: Rick Santorum.

Santorum’s already far behind in the polls, and his only shot at propelling himself forward is a solid performance in the heavily conservative Iowa GOP. Santorum failed to answer the basic question of why he’s in the race at all. Team Santorum should have anticipated that his low poll numbers would afford him little airtime, and pack his answers in.  Instead, he stood on the far left of the stage, flailing his hands for attention. His “big moment” was insisting that some states may use the 10th amendment to institute polygamy. Ron Paul dismissed it seconds later – polygamy, like slavery, is so far away from being possible, there’s no reason to talk about it. Rick Santorum came off like a spoiled brat.

LOST BY DEFAULT: Tim Pawlenty.

Simply put, Tim Pawlenty is awkward, goofy and clumsy on stage. He’s unable to perform smooth transitions between guy-next-door and policy wonk…which is a problem: He campaigns off an “everyday executive” shtick. Rather than attack Mitt Romney, he poked Michele Bachmann – which is sort of like kicking a socially conservative bee’s nest and putting it on your head. Bachmann (a Minnesotan) repeatedly pummeled his record in Minnesota (correctly) as riddled with Cap-and-Trade, government expansion and centrist compromises. Pawlenty’s attempt to cast these responses as “results” and “leadership” won’t fly with Iowa’s Tea Partiers.

Pawlenty missed yet another chance to go after Mitt Romney, and fought with a conservative heroine instead. Pawlenty – as I’ve said before – is an undisciplined and incapable candidate. Pawlenty may have damaged Michele Bachmann in the long run, but did so at the expense of his own chances with conservatives. It’s time for Tim Pawlenty to spend more time with his family.

AWKWARD MOMENTS:

Newt Gingrich makes fun of McCain and Reagan’s “consultants” who almost killed their campaigns. McCain’s former staffers – many of whom were in the audience – are now spread out between Romney, Pawlenty and Huntsman while Reagan’s staffers have landed in almost every other camp besides Newt’s.

Rick Santorum repeatedly reminds us that “he’s not on TV much” — while on TV. He then takes his sparse TV time to talk about Polygamy (while looking at devout Mormon Mitt Romney.)

Newt Gingrich says Sarah Palin has a wonderful “uh, national audience” after lengthily praising Rick Perry’s executive experience and job creation.

Tim Pawlenty makes fun of the size of Mitt Romney’s lawn and wealth — only minutes apart from saying we need to grow wealth in America. Pawlenty came across as the jealous guy down the street, rather than a genuine jokester.

Jon Huntsman, staring down a GOP primary electorate proclaims: “America can do a better job at equality. That’s just my opinion.” Kudos for your honesty, Jon. Awkward moment provided by Rick Santorum’s facial expression.

Rick Perry isn’t there.