The stakes are getting higher. With several key primaries next week and Super Tuesday just around the corner, the contenders for the GOP presidential nomination let loose on Wednesday night with barbs and jabs directed not only at Barack Obama, but also at each other. When the dust settled, we could see not only how Rick Santorum did in his new front-runner position, but also how a host of issues will likely play out in November.

Santorum seemed a bit uncomfortable at the top. This is to be expected, since when a candidate rises in the polls he receives a whole new level of scrutiny. In any case, there were times when Santorum could have handled the questions much better. Whether it was on the subject of ear marks, former Sen. Arlen Specter, or the No Child Left Behind education law, Santorum was on the receiving end for much of the evening.

Here are some highlights:

Regarding No Child Left Behind, Santorum basically told the audience that it was an initiative favored by former President Bush, so Santorum “took one for the team.” He said he does not favor the measure now. Ron Paul pounced on this response saying it’s an example of how messed up things are in Washington. He scored points on that one for sure.

No one wants to hear that you were playing politics and putting your principles on the sideline. What Santorum said is something that happens all the time in Washington, but what he should have just said was that the legislation was wrong, and that he would not vote for it today. It’s much more acceptable to the voters to have a legislator change his mind on an issue than to be perceived as just playing politics.

Here’s a good exchange between Romney and Santorum:

Newt Gingrich did very well during the debate and seemed to be back in the role of statesman-in-chief. His anger was gone, and his focus seemed to come around as the debate went on. He scored points when CNN moderator John King decided to focus on the birth control question:

Gingrigh: “You did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. OK? So let’s be clear here,” Gingrich said, which brought applause from the audience. “If we’re going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama who, as a state senator, voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion. It is not the Republicans.”

Ron Paul did his thing. He was funny at times, and actually seemed to be a little less whiny, but in the end, nothing new came out of his mouth. He can’t attack Santorum on ear marks, because he is a big ear marker as well. Then, there is foreign policy, where he is always the odd man out. During one exchange on Iran, you could have heard crickets in audience. There was not one bit of applause.

As far as the grades, here’s how I see it:

Romney (A) — He was calm, steady, and had a game plan that he executed perfectly. He was on the attack against Santorum and was particularly effective when he brought up Santorum’s support for liberal Arlen Specter. He seemed to stammer less than in the past, and was ready to go on both the social and fiscal issues.

Gingrich (A-) — When Gingrich is on, he’s so entertaining and knowledgeable. That’s how he was on Wednesday night. He focused on the media and Obama and let Santorum and Romney go after each other. Well done.

Santorum (B+) — It’s a little bit harder to grade Rick Santorum. Yes, he stumbled under attack, especially on those topics previously mentioned. But, he also made passionate cases for the virtue of a two-parent home and local control of education. Back in the early debates, he lamented being left out. Now, is in… in a big way. Get used to it.

Paul (B) — Again, whether you are a Ron Paul fan or not, there was little said on Wednesday night to change anyone’s mind. When he was asked to describe himself using only one word, he chose “consistent.” He’s right. And that’s exactly what we got during the debate: Consistent Ron Paul.

Who do you think won the debate?

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