As with the CNBC debate last time around, the clear winner was the format: relatively narrow topic debates sure seem to be a lot more substantive than open topic debates. In large part, that’s (I suspect) because it means that we get very few gotcha and political questions, and virtually no gimmick questions. I haven’t counted yet, but I’d bet that almost everything in last week’s Republican presidential debate was a straight policy question.

In terms of horse race, it’s unlikely that much happened. Mitt Romney probably didn’t hurt himself. Rick Perry rebounded well, probably having his best debate — he’s now been okay in two of the last three debates, and has done about as good a job as possible recovering from the CNBC disaster. Herman Cain was utterly lost again, especially without the 9-9-9 crutch to fall back on, and at least for now he’s lost his humor and zing. Newt? I suppose if you like what he’s selling, you’ll like him tonight. As for the rest, no effect, even indirectly, on the horse race at this point, regardless of what they do.

Of course, the substance was quite depressing for anyone who opposes torture and supports the rule of law. Others will cover it better than me, so I’ll just stop at that. Meanwhile, it certainly is interesting that a large chunk of the GOP is hopping on the pro-Mubarak bandwagon.

Oh, and the CBS/NJ feed during the last half hour was clearly the big loser of the night, for whatever that’s worth.

So: if there’s any political news at all, it’s going to be that Rick Perry managed to get through 90 minutes without making a complete idiot of himself. I see on Intrade that he’s currently a bit below 4 percent (and Newt is up to 14 percent…I’m confident that Newt Gingrich doesn’t have a 1 in 7 chance of winning the nomination, and I suspect Perry has a much better than 1 in 25 chance, but it’s hard to tell.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.