There's little room for doubt. As much as it pains me to say it, professional campaigner Mitt Romney won this one. As an honorary member of the "anybody but Mitt" club, I have to say that Mitt did exactly what he needed to do in this debate, which was to look presidential.
Mitt gave smooth, polished answers. He made no mistakes. He lied convincingly about Romneycare (i.e. "nothing" changed for people in Massachusetts who were already insured). Most importantly, Romney looked like someone who could go toe-to-toe with Obama and win.
Having said all that, I wouldn't necessarily say that "Obamney" performed better than everyone else in debate. He won with the inertia of several years of campaigning -- but he didn't say anything particularly powerful, original or inspiring.
Without further ado, the grades:
Bachmann said very little that will be remembered. Her prior comments on the HPV vaccine and retardation came back to haunt her again, and her defense of those remarks was thoroughly forgettable.
Cain: Great lines, great delivery, great defense of conservative principles. Cain got his mojo back.
Gingrich: His great intellect always shines, but he debated like someone vying for a VP nod. Whose VP does he want to be?
Huntsman: I can't think of anything interesting to say about Huntsman. Can anyone?
Johnson made a bigger dent in this debate. He also demonstrated that he has a sense of humor.
Ron Paul gave several very thoughtful answers to difficult questions. I'd say this was easily his best performance in a GOP debate this year.
Rick Perry barely passed this one. One of the reasons Romney looked so good is that Perry did so badly. Perry's answers were awkward and rambling. He seemed sleep-deprived and unprepared. He said nothing profound, interesting or memorable. He defended himself poorly on the issue of in-state tuition breaks for illegal aliens.
Being in the "anybody but Obamney" camp, I'd like to see Perry do better in the future. But Perry really lowered expectations in this debate.
Romney: see above.
Santorum made some good points, but did very little to stand out, aside from his very effective attack on Rick Perry for Perry's stance on in-state tuition breaks for illegal aliens.