Last night's GOP debate may not have had the full contact hits of Monday Night Football, but a few candidates are certainly nursing their wounds today. In a debate defined by its full frontal assaults and Rick Perry pile ons, the audience finally got to see some sparks fly. With the race now firmly settled into tiers, candidates could no longer afford to play nice with each other. It was time to draw some contrasts.

Virtually every candidate on stage had their moment in the sun where they landed a solid blow on either another candidate on stage, the media or Barack Obama. All, save for Jon Huntsman, who everyone just wishes would go away at this point. Between a Kurt Cobain reference and trying to call Rick Perry's border security answer "treasonous," Huntsman was more tone deaf than Helen Keller. 

Even Rick "Google" Santorum had a good night, thanks in part to a set up by Ron Paul's crackpot foreign policy answer and Michele Bachmann knocking Rick Perry off his feet for Santorum to kick while he was down. Santorum has proved himself, despite a history of stupid and outlandish statements, to be more of a serious candidate than his search engine problems would lead on. Regardless, Santorum is a bit player.

So is Newt Gingrich, but Gingrich shone last night in a way that many GOPers had hoped to see throughout his campaign. At this point, it seems like Gingrich is just trying to rebuild his badly damaged brand with conservatives, which was eviscerated after his attack on Paul Ryan's budget as "social engineering." If Newt wants people to buy his next book or join his email list, he knows he needs to get in good again with the right wing. His debate performance, if judged by that criteria, was a solid one.

Herman Cain appears to be content knowing the only seat he is running for is a talking head slot on Fox News. He is an engaging speaker, a quick wit, and can turn a phrase well — all skills that will fit him well when he drops out in a few months and ends up commentating the remainder of the primary from Fox's studio in New York. 

Ron Paul didn't seem to do himself any good with a foreign policy answer that sounded like he was defending Al Qaeda. A commenter on Twitter put it aptly about Paul and any other libertarian iconoclasts that are asked about their foreign policy views — when asked, they should respond "no comment." While Paul spoke well to the crowd's concern about the government's growth and personal responsibility, when it comes to foreign policy any commentator can see a mile away why Paul will never expand beyond his base of fervent supporters. Put simply, his foreign policy views don't jibe with any part of the Republican Party. 

Michele Bachmann, as we predicted yesterday morning, made herself a part of the conversation again by going for the jugular against frontrunner Rick Perry. Despite not landing any serious blows over Social Security, as her advisors had teased, she did land an uppercut squarely to Perry's jaw over his HPV vaccine mandate in Texas. Bachmann seemed skittish about dropping the Gardasil pay-for-play bomb right up until she did. After the words "your former Chief of Staff" left her mouth she went full bore. 

Perry made the amateur mistake of buying into the premise of Bachmann's charge and let out a soundbite that is certain to haunt him going forward. In responding to Bachmann's allegation that Perry mandated the HPV vaccine through Executive Order to benefit his former Chief of Staff, who was the Chief Lobbyist for the company that produced the vaccine, Perry said he "couldn't be bought for $5,000."

Huge mistake.

To make matters worse for Perry, Sarah Palin went on Fox News after the debate to pile on Perry for "crony capitalism." The target of Palin's venom is NEVER a place a Republican primary candidate wants to be.

Whether it's a lasting problem will be determined in the next couple of weeks.

Rick Perry has an absolutely stellar job creation record in Texas, which is a pretty hard attribute to diminish in this economy, so all of this HPV talk may not matter if voters are as singularly focused on the economy as polls indicate.

Mitt Romney yet again survived another debate, not so much by winning, but by not losing and not taking any serious flak. He is awkward, for sure, and sometimes sounds way too rehearsed, but with Rick Perry the new frontrunner he is able to avoid becoming the singular pinata. For a candidate with a enormous black mark on his resume in the form of Romneycare, not being the number one target is a blessing in disguise for Romney. 

Romney also seemed to understand that the debate was not won and lost in the debate hall — letting boos from the audience roll off his sleeve. Chris Cilizza of The Washington Post's The Fix made the good point that Romney was focused on the broader audience watching the debate, rather than the tiny segment of activists who attended the debate. 

The big question that leads to is: what exactly does the broader primary electorate look like?

Beyond that essential question, the debate also opened up some new inquiries, namely:

  1. Will Bachmann be able to draw a clear contrast between her no mandate record and Perry's HPV mandate?
  2. Will Mitt Romney continue to avoid full frontal assaults, while having other candidates do serious damage to Rick Perry?
  3. Rick Perry can stand tall, but fall hard. Which one will it be?
  4. When will Jon Huntsman go away?