Sioux City, Iowa

This was the nice debate.

Sure, Michele Bachmann went after Newt Gingrich on Fannie and Freddie, and she sparred with Ron Paul on Iran. But those exchanges were notable because they were exceptions to what was otherwise a very friendly debate between Republican candidates who have been tearing each other apart in interviews and on the airwaves over the past several weeks.

Newt Gingrich opened the debate by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas – a sentiment that seemed to set the tone for a mostly conciliatory affair. Gingrich, who grossly mischaracterized Mitt Romney’s position on Medicare reform late last week, suggesting it might take benefits from current beneficiaries, on Thursday congratulated Romney for offering a plan that others have seized on as a model. Gingrich said that Romney deserves “credit” for a “good plan” that shares characteristics with the bipartisan plan offered today by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Ron Wyden. That praise came moments after Gingrich agreed with Rommey’s answer on presidential leadership and moments after Gingrich enthusiastically nodded his head as Ron Paul spoke of constitutional conservatism and the need to reach out to Democrats and independents. Gingrich praised Rick Santorum on abortion and joked that he wanted to avoid appearing “zany” – a lighthearted response to criticism Romney leveled on Wednesday.

Romney followed this example. When Fox News moderator Chris Wallace asked him about criticism he’d received from both Gingrich and Barack Obama, Romney responded only to the criticism from Obama. More telling: He did not attack Gingrich in this face-to-face encounter as he and his surrogates have been doing rather ferociously in interviews and ads.

More broadly, there were no big “moments” in this debate that would seem to change the trajectory of this very fluid race. Gingrich came under fire from Bachmann and the questioners for taking money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He responded by giving a weak defense of the role of government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) and an unconvincing case that his consulting was not technically lobbying. But Gingrich recovered later with a strong, self-deprecating answer on the Keystone Pipeline. He said that he had been “editing” himself in his head but nonetheless called Obama’s decision “irrational” and suggested Republicans ought to keep sending him legislation on Keystone in order to make him continue blocking it.

Romney didn’t make any major mistakes and had several good moments. In response to a question about what sectors of the U.S. economy will be generating jobs in ten years, Romney gave a nearly pitch-perfect answer explaining that the government shouldn’t make decisions that the free market will.

Ron Paul, whose support in Iowa is strong and has doubled since his run in 2008, spent way too much time making indefensible claims on foreign policy and national security – arguments that did not sit well with many in the crowd of more than 1,000 in the convention hall.

Rick Perry was better than he’s been in other debates, but did not have a real breakthrough moment. He has mastered the art of self-deprecation and his answers on foreign policy seemed to reflect some amount of study. They were better than those he gave in the early debates, when he was visibly uncomfortable talking about foreign affairs.

Bachmann successfully picked some fights and managed to work herself into the middle of the debate far more than she has been in recent outings. Her surprise at Gingrich’s defense of his work for the GSE seemed genuine, but she failed to make that outrage into a broader critique of Gingrich or GSEs.

Neither Rick Santorum, who has a good chance of over performing his polling in Iowa, nor Jon Huntsman, who doesn’t, was much of a factor.

The irony: As the candidates played nice on stage in Sioux City, their campaigns were no doubt readying television and radio ads, mailers and phone calls, designed to shred their opponents in the 18 days before Iowa voters caucus on January 3.

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