Wow. By far, the best debate of the cycle in either party. Just about everybody came out swinging, took some lumps, countered, made the crowd laugh, spurred applause, and jabbed at the moderators. The crowd was fired up, and the moderators took an aggressive tack that shook any lingering lethargy out of the candidates. Feel confident, Republicans. One way or another, the GOP is going to have a good debater representing it next year.
Winner or winners? Tough to call, because I think we saw just about every candidate at their best tonight, even the no-hopers like Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo. So I’ll classify the participants a bit differently this evening:
Helped Themselves a Lot Tonight:
Fred Thompson: Frankly, he needed it. He really should have gotten a bigger chunk of the vote at the Family Research Council summit straw poll, and let’s face it, we had been waiting for any speech, any debate appearance, any event with Thompson to be a “wow, that was fantastic.” Well, tonight was that moment we’ve been waiting for, maybe none better than his answer to Wendell Goler’s question/accusation of laziness. His answer on the lobbying for the abortion group was strong, too – ‘look at my votes, and the pro-choice folks I worked for are pulling this out now because they fear me.’ Finally – finally! – we’re seeing what we wanted to see in Thompson – homespun, able to make his case simply, directly, and clearly, and with a bit of humor here and there.
Rudy Giuliani: The first time I thought Rudy Giuliani could be president was at his 2004 convention speech, where he hit all kinds of emotional notes just right. Similar performance tonight – maybe heavy on laughs – but it worked. Pugnacious, quick thinker on his feet, engaging. And, as usual, if you lead the polls, and nobody walks out of a debate talking about your gaffes or bad answers (and other than a slightly weird joke about not being sure that he didn’t accidentally perform a gay marriage, Rudy didn’t have many bad moments) you won. Rudy won’t lose ground; this is a candidate and a campaign hitting all cylanders at just the right time. He took some shots, but the attacks were probably old news to those following the race day in, day out.
Mike Huckabee: After the FRC summit, he’s the social conservative choice, and if he gets the nomination, Hillary won’t know what hit her. This guy can sell ice to Eskimos. Kept his momentum, and played against his “the funny one” typecasting with his argument, “there’s nothing funny about Hillary Clinton as Commander in Chief.”
Probably Helped Themselves a Little Tonight:
John McCain: Some great lines, and once again, a candidate felt the need to salute McCain’s service in the miltiary as well as in the Senate. We’ll see if this performance does him good in the polls – he did a great speech at the FRC, and it got him nowhere. I think the aspect I liked most was that he could jab at his rivals, but it never seemed too nasty or cranky. He’s got stature. He’s a well-established brand name, and I wonder if he’s turning into everyone’s second or third choice.
Mitt Romney: One of his strongest performances, but it seemed like somebody put a “kick me” sign on his back right before he went on. On the other hand, it’s a sign of where he is in the race that Thompson, Giuliani, and McCain see value in attacking him at this moment. Kathryn said he could have used the PowerPoint slides on one answer. But great jabs at Hillary, and seemed to feed off the crowd’s energy.
Oh, and I vote for the mussed-up hair.
Thanks For Playing: Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, and Ron Paul. Come back when you’re at ten percent in one of the early primary states or a national poll.
UPDATE: In my e-mailbox, every campaign thinks their guy won. I know this will come as a great surprise to you. I pledge, any campaign that sends me an e-mail: “EXPERTS AGREE: OUR GUY LOST, BIG-TIME; PUNDITS CALL PERFORMANCE ‘CATASTROPHIC’ AND ‘EMBARRASSING” I will print in this space in its entirety.