Are There Now Three GOP Frontrunners After Iowa Debate?

The only one of the real GOP front runners to serve up the proverbial "red meat" at Thursday night's debate in Iowa was Newt Gingrich.

The former House Speaker brought the crowd in Sioux City to their feet with a rousing defense of the need and urgency for policy makers to take on the judiciary field of judges who are acting outside the scope of their responsibility or prudence.

And Gingrich also scored points by strongly linking energy and security to national security, both in terms of the proposed Keystone pipeline project and in terms of standing up to an autocratic regime in Iran. It was clear that the former Georgia Congressman hit a responsive chord. But that may not be enough on January 3.

While the speaker did offer red meat, nonetheless, his opponents also were able to land direct hits on his ties to Freddie Mac and the $1.6 million he received in consulting fees.

Gingrich was forced to defend the "GSE's" as they are called -- Government Sponsored Entities -- and to defend expanding housing through the use of what proved to be risky mortgages, in a way that cannot but hurt him.

More substantively, when Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul attacked him for being a lobbyist or at least an advocate for Freddie Mac, it was a telling moment in the debate, and the look on Gingrich's face suggested that he, too, knew that he had a position that was tough to defend, notwithstanding the fact that he said he had never lobbied on their behalf, or on anyone's behalf for that matter.

The fact that Gingrich had received $1.6 million from a government sponsored entity and received tax payer money was enough to cast a chill on his performance.

Mitt Romney played it safe. He has obviously concluded that Gingrich's numbers are now weak enough and his own numbers are strong enough that he can potentially come in first or second in the caucuses without personally attacking the speaker.

The way that Romney's ads and those of Ron Paul's have driven Gingrich's numbers down nationally and specifially in Iowa in the last few days has made a race that a week ago was not competitive, within the margin of error.

The former Massachusetts governor made it clear by his performance that he is trying to position himself as a clear alternative to President Obama, and indeed the most electable alternative, given his attempt to associate himself with anti-Obama policies generally, and a specific set of qualifications that uniquely qualify him to improve the economy more generally.

Ron Paul did what he always has done. He advocated a libertarian philosophy compellingly and well in the first half, and lost a good portion of the audience and indeed the electorate, by suggesting that the Iran threat was non-existent or minimal in terms of nuclear weapons.

The issue for Ron Paul is whether his support of approximately 18-20% of the Iowa caucus goers will expand, if only because turnout is expected to relatively small, around 80,000, on January 3rd.

While Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry had better performances than they have had previously, the impact is unlikely to be that substantial, in terms of changing the race.

Bachmann's main contribution was landing a number of direct hits on former speaker Gingrich, raising the question of whether she has concluded that the best result for her would be to not mention Mitt Romney.

The Fox News unscientific viewer question afterward the debate told the story. With 60% saying that Romney had as good performance and 59% Gingrich, the clear conclusion is that there was no real winner or no candidate who effectively distinguished themselves.

Gingrich most likely stabilized the race. Romney certainly made it clear that he once again appeared most presidential, and the race goes into the final two and a half weeks before the Iowa caucuses with three credible candidates-- Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney-- each of whom can win.

In the end, the Fox News debate, which was supposed to involve an extraordinary amount of fireworks, proved to be one of the more serious discussions of the issues in the campaign, with the only notable absence of any discussion by the candidates of what they would do to fix a crumbling and still weak economy.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and Fox News contributor. His most recent book is "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.