11/22/2011 11:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

The Republican Think Tank Debate

The official name of CNN's candidate forum at Constitution Hall in Washington was "The Republican National Security Debate." More accurately, it should have been called the "Republican Think Tank Debate," because the questions came almost entirely from representatives of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which co-sponsored the event. Celebrity conservatives like Ed Meese, Paul Wolfowitz, and David Addington joined a parade of research fellows, program directors, and executive vice presidents for an inside-the-Beltway event par excellence.

This eleventh major presidential primary debate of the season was a wonkish affair, held before a wonkish throng. Anyone looking for fireworks or one-liners or gaffes came away disappointed -- the debaters and questioners operated in tandem to keep the discussion serious and substantive. With the notable exceptions of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, the candidates found themselves agreeing upon many issues, yet the level of their dialogue allowed for differences to emerge as well.

Thanks in large measure to his recent polling gains, Newt Gingrich grabbed a leading role in this debate. In earlier candidate gatherings he has tended to play a supporting part, one that would not be out of place in a TV sitcom: the bombastic, self-important next-door-neighbor who parachutes into the main action just long enough to perform his predictable shtick -- in Newt's case, a quick blast of media-bashing plus a reminder or two of how smart he is. The Gingrich sound bite machine has served up plenty of appetizers in these debates, but never the main course.

At the CNN forum, Gingrich stepped comfortably into the center ring. As a member in good standing of the Washington think tank set, the former Speaker of the House held something of a home field advantage, and the substantive tone of the questioning further put him at ease. For ninety minutes, at least, Gingrich managed to sand off the rougher edges of his personality, which is something he will need to do more of if he hopes to appeal to the general electorate.

But will the man ever be able to stop patting himself on the back? Asked a question about extending the Patriot Act, Gingrich began by saying, "I spent years studying this stuff." He is so self-referential that he wastes his response time passing judgment on the wording of the questions, the quality of the topics, the statements of his colleagues, and so on. All this me-me-me does not endear him to the audience.

Mitt Romney performed well at this debate -- no surprise there -- though he came across as a bit wishy-washy in a couple of his responses. Romney's rhetorical strategy is to pretend that he is debating President Obama, not his rivals on the stage. For the most part he pulls off this maneuver successfully, at least in part because his fellow candidates let him get away with it.

Ron Paul had one of his best debates of the season, bravely staking out contrarian positions and standing his ground on everything from America's relationship with Israel to medical marijuana. Paul was at his most passionate when arguing the question of liberty-versus-security, and for once he managed to avoid going off on any odd tangents. His presence in the debates is important; it keeps the field from marching in lockstep.

Rick Perry got through the night in one piece, after starting out on a tone-deaf note. For some reason, in front of this sophisticated crowd of Washington insiders, Perry turned his opening statement into a corny verbal love letter to his wife -- who, as far as we know, has nothing to do with national security. As the evening went on, Perry made his points without flubbing them, though too often you could hear him reciting his lessons -- at one point, within a couple of sentences, Perry cited the Monroe Doctrine, Hezbollah, Mexico, Iran, and Hugo Chavez.

If recent ratings trends are any indication, several million viewers will have seen the Constitution Hall debate. All in all, they received a decent glimpse into the candidates' positions on national affairs.