Gingrich, Paul Find Receptive Crowd at GOP Debate

National security and foreign policy issues offer chance for "elevated debate."

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Before an audience of Washington insiders and foreign policy experts, the Republican presidential field took the debate stage on Tuesday seeking to distinguish themselves as the best choice for commander in chief in 2012. Without any of the major missteps of past debates, the contenders delivered answers on issues ranging from Syria to immigration.

While all the GOP hopefuls had a chance to highlight their views on defense, some set themselves apart more effectively than others.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave a confident performance, likely bolstering his frontrunner status after recent polls show him edging ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Gingrich spoke comfortably to the scholarly Washington, D.C., crowd, which included former government officials and staff from two prominent right-leaning think-tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, the night's co-hosts.

Gingrich responded to moderator Wolf Blitzer's questions with intricate details while pushing a broader point about tackling what he called the "mindless bureaucracy" of the capital city.

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He drew perhaps the biggest applause of the night with his answer on how to deal with Pakistan.

"We were told a perfectly natural Washington assumption that our killing bin Laden in Pakistan drove U.S.-Pakistan relations to a new low," he said. "To which my answer is, well, it should have, because we should be furious."

Where Gingrich distinguished himself with wonkery, Texas Rep. Ron Paul's libertarian-leaning ideology put distance between him and his competitors.

The debate's format, in which participants were allowed to respond to attacks and engage with their fellow candidates, seemed to benefit Paul, who often chimed in to counter his opponents' more hawkish views.

Paul harshly criticized the Patriot Act, calling it "unpatriotic" and saying that it "undermines our liberty." He lambasted the U.S.'s strong relationship with Israel—a top recipient of U.S. military aid and a hot-button issue in international relations. And he called the war on drugs a "total failure," advocating the legalization of medical marijuana.

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Romney was slower to get in the game, but picked up momentum with nuanced responses on issues like immigration and U.S. policy toward Syria.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann used the forum to show off her foreign policy prowess earned as a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

She challenged Texas Gov. Rick Perry's policy on ending aid to Pakistan, for example, as "highly naïve."

Perry, along with businessman Herman Cain, avoided the serious gaffes that have marked their campaigns in recent weeks. Yet, like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, their answers largely didn't elicit the same enthusiastic reactions from the crowd as others like Gingrich or Paul.

Altogether, the debate was more erudite than the preceding 10, noted one foreign policy insider in the crowd.

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"It actually was the best discussion of any debate we have had so far. It was elevated, there were no personal attacks," says Marc Thiessen, a counterterrorism expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "They were actually having a serious discussion about what they would do as commander-in-chief, which is what has been missing so far."