I thought the GOP debate last night was livelier than just about any debate, Democrat or Republican, that I’ve see so far. Maybe it was the looming announcement of Fred Thompson on Leno, or perhaps the candidates wanted to show that they have what it takes to win. Or they could have served all of them Red Bull and Sour Patch Kids before the debate as refreshments.

Whatever the case, there were several charged moments, one of the most entertaining of which was the tit-for-tat between Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee over the Iraq war. Another pointed moment was John McCain’s correction of Mitt Romney that the surge was working and not “apparently working” as Romney states.

Anyway, here’s my take on the candidates:

Winners:

1. John McCain had his strongest performance to date, punching his way out of the corner like Rocky Balboa pummeling Ivan Drago. I’m not sure if its a case of “too little, too late” for McCain, but he certainly helped himself out in New Hampshire, the site of his upset of Dubbya in 2000. After derailing, running low on coal and losing a couple of rail workers, it is possible the “Straight Talk Express” may finally be back on track.

2. Mike Huckabee turned in another strong debate, which on the heels of his second place Ames finish, figures to boost his already surging poll numbers. Chuck Todd of MSNBC was especially gushing over Huck’s performance: “In particular, the exchange with Ron Paul where Huckabee got to defend McCain, defend the surge and also call Iraq a mistake was, dare I say, a mix of Reagan and Clinton.”

Losers:

1. Mitt Romney had a lot of high and tight fastballs thrown his way, some of which he handled well, but a couple of which had him hitting the dirt. One tough moment was his exchanges with McCain on Iraq, where he had to go on the defensive when McCain corrected on his “apparently” statement and McCain’s general message that Romney’s stance on the war is fluid, and what he says depends on his audience. Another rough patch was when he was questioned by a father in a New Hampshire restaurant for comparing his children’s work on his campaign with military service and weakly agreed it was a bad comparison before stumbling into a different topic.

2. Rudy Giuliani basically stayed out of the fray by focusing on his mayoral experience and hitting the Democrats. He did battle with Romney over immigration and “sanctuary cities” but my feeling is that he turned in a bit of a Richardson-esque performance by going to the well too often on his time in NYC’s mayor’s office. (By the way, did you know that Bill Richardson is the governor of New Mexico? Crazy right?)

Mixed Performance:

1. Ron Paul was involved in some heated moments, the most obvious one being his exchange with Huckabee. But I have to somewhat agree with Chuck Todd again in that I also feel that he comes off as an “angry old man” sometimes. This statement in particular sums it up: “At one point, I was simply wondering why he just didn’t scream, “Hey kids, GET OFF MY LAWN!” Although I do have to say, I did see someone write that they’d love to see Paul and Mike Gravel in a one-on-one debate. I can think of a certain PD Editor who would likely enjoy that scrum.

2. Fred Thompson was not even there, but his pending announcement on The Tonight Show was discussed in the early stages of the debate. I think that Fred’s people loved the idea that despite the fact he wasn’t even there, his candidacy had to be reckoned with. That being said, he took a lot of hits from both candidates and moderators alike for not being at the debate, and I think many voters are wondering the same.

As far as Duncan Hunter, Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo goes, I feel that did little to distinguish themselves, although Tancredo got some nice lines in early on about sealing the border and this was probably Brownback’s most consistent performance to date.

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