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10 pm. The winners tonight were the Fox interviewers, Baier and Wallace, who pulled no punches in this battle and asked some very tart and tough questions of the various candidates.

I think Bachmann is the current front-runner in Iowa and the debate tonight will cement her status. T-Paw was better; Romney came across as even shiftier than usual; Huntsman let his nerves get the better of him; Ron Paul's freshness has waned; Herman Cain was hopeless; Gingrich was very very angry; and Santorum is so exercized about Iran he even wandered into a defense of gays! Awesome.

9.58 pm. Huntsman actually opposes the irresponsibility of allowing the US to default, when we could also make some incremental progress toward reducing the debt. Imagine.

9.53 pm. Wow. Santorum sounds responsible on the debt ceiling. Compared with the others anyway. "Showmanship not leadership" seems to be the way some candidates are going to tackle Bachmann (and, if they dare) Palin.

9.51 pm. Newt and Ron bond on the Fed. If you live long enough …

9.49 pm. Readers still reeling:

Admittedly I've had a few pops, but I think I just heard Santorum say Iran "tramples the rights of gays", and even made it sound like a bad thing … reading the Sierra Nevada label now to see if hallucinations are a possible side effect.

9.46 pm. Bachmann defends her opposition to raising the debt ceiling. She has no answer on what the impact would have been if she had forced us to leap over that cliff, though. I really think this debt ceiling indifference is going to hurt these candidates. People want to cut spending, but they don't want to seek national default on purpose. The current GOP doctrine is not conservatism, it's anti-government radicalism. And that is not a winner in a nervous electorate in hard times.

9.45 pm. Huntsman hasn't loosened up. And the EPA's "reign of terror"? Please.

9.43 pm. Romney refuses (twice!) to say whether he'd support extending unemployment benefits for those caught in the current recession. He'd prefer "savings accounts" for the unemployed. No, I'm not kidding.

9.36 pm. Wow. Huntsman defends civil unions as "subordinate" to civil marriage but vital to "equality." Oookaaay. Then he runs away from it substantively. I'm immensely grateful that someone on that stage does not regard gay relationships as evil, and that gay citizens have a claim on equality. But he needs to be more convincing.

9.34 pm. Romney – who was a tenth amendment enthusiast when it came to healthcare – now backs a federal constitutional amendment to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples. Just total incoherence.

9.33 pm. Bachmann says "submission" to her husband means "respect" for him. Great question. I have to say Fox has done well tonight in asking provocative but fair questions.

9.31 pm. Cain on Mormonism. Oh, great. He wasn't casting "dispersions" against Mormons. He's become "documented" on that.

9.30 pm. Gingrich backs loyalty oaths – especially for proud liars. Applies to Catholics as well, apparently. Ineffective and disgusting. Truly, deeply disgusting.

9.29 pm. Social issues. Gulp.

9.27 pm. A reader writes:

Did your head just explode, Andrew? Mine did… Suddenly Santorum gives a crap about women and gays? Seriously?

I think he supports our right to vote.

9.25 pm. Ron Paul yells "It's time to quit these wars!" The crowd erupts. Totally loving this debate. Easily the most entertaining I've sat through in a long time.

9.24 pm. Santorum attacks Iran on removing rights for gays. Which rights for gays does Santorum support in America?

9.21 pm. Bachmann says that the intelligence that got Osama bin Laden came from Gitmo. Really? Bachmann also essentially says she'll declare war on Iran to save Israel. She sees no distinction between a terror suspect and a convicted terrorist.

9.19 pm. Great to see Paul and Santorum go at it over Iran. Great comeback from Ron Paul on who started this conflict: the US did. The first real smackdown of neocon nonsense in the debate so far. So just as I thought he was wobbly, he got his mojo back.

9.16 pm. Ron Paul is having a bad night. He seems more meandering, more out of it, more rambling old man than usual. And I say that as a fan of his non-interventionist courage. Loved the line about Cuba, though. Same principle as Israel.

9.14 pm. Pawlenty just described assassinations of scientists as "good work". He also says there should be "no daylight" between US policy and Israeli policy. Between his own president and the prime minister of a foreign country, Pawlenty is with the foreign power.

9.13 pm. Huntsman has equated possible cyber-hacking by foreign powers with an act of warfare.

9.08 pm. Romney gets caught in another flip-flop on Afghanistan. His reasoning is that we should build nations and democracies abroad – but only for a decade or so. After that, outta there. I notice that both he and Pawlenty want to attack Obama for an allegedly precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

9.05 pm. Bachmann doesn't get back in time for the resumption of the debate. Huntsman has a great line about prayers – and job-creation. His best moment yet. Bachmann handles the Palin rivalry very deftly. No one is going to say anything bad about Palin. Not yet, anyway.

9.04 pm. A correction: it's Minnesota Nice not Wisconsin Nice. A reader tells me it's Wisconsin drunk. And I'll get another bunch of emails for that. But my bad.

9 pm. Santorum is arguing that morality should take precedence over the tenth amendment. His morality, of course. Gives him some cojones in this context to challenge federalism in this way. and it reveals an intellectual honesty. Freedom does not mean the freedom to violate the eternal, unchanging "laws of nature", as defined by the Catholic church. At least you know where you are with him.

8.57 pm. Bachmann again repeats her red meat argument against any mandate anywhere. She does so calmly, clearly and sincerely. So far, she's in a league of her own on this stage.

8.55 pm. Romney repeats his usual response to his endorsement of a state-level version of Obamacare by bringing up the tenth amendment. Then he ducks a basic issue of the individual mandate. With the current GOP, defending a state's ability to force children to go to school is not such a great idea.

Gingrich, meanwhile, just seems very very angry.

8.50 pm. Santorum is actually saying you can compromise in politics! The line on Bachmann: we need leadership, not showmanship. But Santorum would still not compromise an inch on taxes. In fact, every single one of them would walk away from a compromise that cut the debt by a combination of 10 – 1 spending cuts to tax hikes. That's how extreme this party is. And when two-thirds of the public want some increase in taxes on the wealthy, you are pitted against a huge amount of the American middle.

8.45 pm. The one thing they cannot possibly admit is any increase in government revenues. You can't even raise taxes on cigarettes! Bachmann uses the question to Pawlenty on cigarette taxes to brag her pro-life credentials. And her basic position is: everything she wants to achieve is non-negotiable. If you want a human incarnation of the current GOP's extremism, she is easily your woman. I'd say she's winning this debate by a mile.

8.43 pm. Romney defends his support for tax increases as a way to upgrade his state's credit rating. It's a good line in the general, not such a great defense in a primary. Romney sure doesn't seem the commanding figure on this stage.

8.39 pm. "High fences and wide doors" is a great formulation for immigration policy. But it's a slogan, not a policy. Ron Paul pivots toward foreign policy, with a muffed but good line about more concern about the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the border between the US and Mexico.

8.36 pm. On illegal immigration, Huntsman stands on border security first and only. Romney, mercifully, backs legal immigration enthusiastically, especially the talented and qualified. It really is a relief to hear a Republican say something positive about immigrants. It's been so long.

8.35 pm. Cain says he has now been "documented" on the Palestinian right of return. Big cheers on sharia law.

8.33 pm. The questions are tough as hell: good for Fox. Huntsman gives a rather superb answer to the notion that he shouldn't have been Obama's ambassador. Then he launches into a defense of his Utah record. There's still a nervous quiver in his voice, and the applause was close to impossible to hear, but his Utah record is impressive. But no real breakthrough for him.

8.32 pm. Gingrich attacks Chris Wallace, and the mob backs Gingrich. Newt wins. Quite an impressive, and angry tirade against the press.

8.31 pm. So far, the most entertaining brawl since the Obama-Clinton battles last time around. But notice one thing: no policy answers to any policy questions. The only specific one so far: lowering the corporate tax rate for manufacturing. It's still all they've got: tax cuts. I'd do a shot for every policy proposal, but I doubt I'd get a buzz on.

8.30 pm. Wow. This T-Paw-Bachmann brawl is awesome. Essentially, Pawlenty is calling her useless; she's calling him Obama-lite. I'll tell what I find great: the inclusion of a woman candidate without the slightest deference, condescension, or squeamishness. Bachmann has already proved she's better than Palin, and T-Paw looks like a hairball a cat just coughed up.

8.25 pm. Bachmann looks right at Pawlenty and basically calls him a commie because he once backed "cap and trade" and the "individual mandate". The eyes are still staring and, to my mind, she just knocked T-Paw off his modest pedestal. She's boasting about every purist position she ahs ever taken.

8.21 pm. Pawlenty is much better tonight. A pretty great dig at how many lawns Romney has, and a refusal to duck on his criticism of Bachmann. To say her Congressional record is "non-existent" is not exactly Wisconsin-nice.

8.15 pm. Huntsman comes off nervous, trips over his unready website, and then launches into a defense of his Utah governorship. That'll be his message, I suppose: that his governorship proves his competence. That will require elaboration. But so far, not a fantastic start.

8.07 pm CST. One thing I was watching for tonight is just how far out there these candidates would be. So far, Michele Bachmann offered not a single policy and Mitt Romney had a seven-point seminar. Both would have refused to raise the debt ceiling last week.

(Photo: Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) delivers a speech and answers employees' questions while visiting Competitive Edge, an advertising and promotion product manufacturer, August 10, 2011 in Clive, Iowa. Bachmann is campaigning all over the state ahead of the all important Iowa Straw Poll Saturday. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)