ABC held the latest in the seemingly endless parade of republican presidential debates Saturday night. As these affairs go, it was pretty good, with the hosts, George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer using a light touch and showing admirable respect for the candidates. There were a few memorable lines, but the most intriguing aspect of the entire debate was the question if Daine Sawyer was drunk or wacked out on drugs. Her delivery was painfully measured at times and bordering on slurred. I don't see her much, so maybe that is the norm for her but I found it a bit disconcerting. I noticed that as the debate wore on, George handled more and more of it, so I wonder what the heck was going on. Anyway, to the candidates. The conventional wisdom was that Newt entered the hall with a target on his back, and that the other candidates, particularly those not named Mitt, would launch an all out attack on the new frontrunner. Certainly that was ABC's dream. The attacks came, but they were pretty tame. Michele Bachmann doubledipped, going after Newt and Romney for liberal positions and called them "Newt Romney." At first I thought she was having a Perry moment, but she repeated the term several times so that everyone got it. I thought it was an effective if not devastating way of making her point that she was the most consistent conservative, a term that was fequently used. Newt scored the most memorable line, responding to Romney's jibe about "career politicians" with the acerbic observation that Mitt would have also been a career politician if he hadn't lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994. Newt parried the attacks pretty effectively all night, displaying the kind of adroit footwork that might get him on Dancing if the White House gig doesn't work out. Unfortunately, I have the feeling Newt's lines might not sound quite so charming the morning after. He flatly denied Bachmann's claim that he was for cap and trade. I can see an ad quoting that, then showing him with Nancy Pelosi wailing about global warming. Maybe he never used the actual words "cap and trade', but Bachmann was using it as shorthand. He also continued with the preposterous argument that his big payoff from FRE was for "consulting ", as he said, the same kind of stuff McKinsey does. No one called him on it, but how hard would it be for someone to say, OK how about you produce a copy of the report you prepared for them? Let's see what $1.5 mill buys in Washington, DC. I think we know what it buys. It used to be called influence peddling. He denies he did any loibbying,as if that's a virtue. At least lobbying is out in the open. I think the big winner of the debate, other than Newt, was clearly Ron Paul. He got extended opportunities to speak, and with it was able to break out of the two dimensional crackpot impression some have had of him. If voters really want an outsider with no hidden agenda who cares about the Constitution and putting our country first, here's their chance. Bachmann also did well in my view. She made a clever effort to glom onto Cain supporters, mentioning him several times in a positive light. She also went after Newt and Romney pretty hard. I think it is a mistake to count her out. Her chances would seem to depend on Newt crashing and burning, but that is always a possibility. Santorum sounded good, in limited time. He's facing the Ron Paul problem now. How do you use the debates when they won't let you talk? Perry was all over the place. At times, such as recalling his poor upbringing , he was inspirational. At others, he was his old self, fumbling over phrases and botching lines he had clearly practiced. It's unfortunate, but I think voters have decided they have to nominate someone who can go toe to toe with Obama, and Perry isn't that guy. Anyway, it was entertaining. The conventional takeaway was that Newt got the best of it, if only by not getting torn apart. Romney vaguely disappointed. He was again competent, confident and composed, but he can see the train leaving the station with Newt waving goodby out the window.