The GOP debate last night in Ames, Iowa featured good performances by three candidates (Romney, Bachmann, and Pawlenty). It’s funny the degree to which debates are in the eye of the beholder. The astute Jennifer Rubin thought the night was a disaster for Tim Pawlenty. I thought he did a good job. 

Admitedly Pawlenty may have been a bit hyper in his attempt to show he is not a wimp (remember New Hampshire?). He knows a cardinal rule: You don’t have to answer the question. But I thought he did this deftly. When Michele Bachman mentioned that he had (briefly) been in favor of cap and trade on a state level, Pawlenty sidestepped the question, which required a complicated answer, and talked about his governorship. I also thought his relentless attack on Bachmann paid off-she was less the star than in New Hampshire. (Of course, as Barack Obama is beginning to guess, you can’t be new twice.) But I may be blind because I like Pawlenty’s economic proposals.

Romney did an excellent job-but, as usual, he just doesn’t generate much heat. In response to a question about people who’d lost their jobs because of his Bain Capital corporate turn-arounds, Romney gave a nice little disquisition on the dynamism of capitalism. He almost wandered into dangerous territory when explaining why he is for the individual mandate in Massachusetts but not in the entire country. He gave similar reasons to Obama’s. But  Romney would grant all states immediate waivers from Obamacare. That, it seems, should be enough. I did wonder if Mitt could keep that smile if he had to deal with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi-but he did govern with Democrats in Massachusetts.

And how about liberal media darling Jon Huntsman? The handsome former Utah governor in the bespoke suit came from central casting. But central casting failed to supply him with the right lines for a Republican debate. His stance in favor of civil unions seemed to go over like a lead balloon. Newt Gingrich had a surefire way to respond to questions he didn’t like-he called them “gotcha questions,” even if they concerned relevant matters such as the disintegration of his campaign.

There are so many things to like about Herman Cain, the other businessman in the field. But none of them were on display last night. He managed to make southerners sound like bigots in explaining that he has no problems with Mormonism but, well, the folks in Atlanta are saying….Cain also still seems unable to find Afghanistan on a map. Rep. Ron Paul has some good domestic ideas, though he always managed to come across as a cranky uncle. His foreign policy is pure fantasy. “Ron, Iran is not Iceland,” former Senator Rick Santorum admonished Paul.

The questioners were good, and there were no John King moments (“American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent”?). We’ll be sick of debates by this time next year, but this one was not bad. I can’t wait to see Rick “Coyote Slayer” Perry stride onto the stage next time. The GOP has some good candidates. I don’t understand why they complain all the time.