The 19th debate of the 2012 cycle had the clearest outcome: Mitt Romney is back on top, and time is running out. The four remaining candidates will be running hard through the Florida primary next Tuesday, but Newt Gingrich is now running out of time.
Romney brought his A-game tonight, taking the fight to Gingrich in a way he's never been able to. He reassured Republican voters that he has the moxie to stand up to President Barack Obama on the debate stage, which has been a challenge for him throughout this campaign.
Romney also provided strong answers on immigration and on Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — deflecting Gingrich's attacks right back at him. He looked like a front-runner tonight, and ready to turn to the general election.
He had a great night tonight -- maybe good enough to make him, not Gingrich, the last conservative standing. But his performance mostly assured that Gingrich isn't going anywhere. Santorum drew Romney out on health care reform, but failed to deliver a damaging blow. This may take him to Super Tuesday, but he doesn't have the money, organization, or support to go the distance.
Catastrophe doesn't even describe how bad tonight was for Gingrich. His sole argument for being the alternative to Mitt Romney is that he would ostensibly wipe the floor with President Barack Obama in the general — but he couldn't even handle Romney tonight.
He probably blew any chance at winning Florida tonight, and his path beyond that is bleak.
Liberated from any ties to a conventional campaign, Ron Paul was all over the place tonight. He and his campaign were operating off entirely different playbooks — and the candidate seemed unwilling to engage the other candidates on any issue.