Last night’s debate was the first one where the Republican frontrunners really seemed itching to go at it. Rudy found himself bickering not just with Ron Paul, but with Romney, Thompson, and McCain, while Huckabee continued to affirm that he’s just dying for the three frontrunners to tear each other’s eyes out. A few thoughts:

Giuliani: Following his 2% showing at the Values Voters poll, Rudy appears to be looking beyond the evangelical vote. He’s aware that his path to the nomination goes around them – and he’s aiming more for assurance than success – he needs to convince the religious right not to jump ship if he is nominated. He seems to think the best way to do this is non-stop Hillary bashing. But does anyone outside of NY really care that he’s a bigger Yankee fan than she is? (Does anyone in NY even care?)

Thompson: He’s getting it together a bit. He was still dry and monotonous at times, and he looked down at his cue cards way too much, but his final moment – a convincing defense against the laziness charge – stole the close of the show. My advice to Thompson: lose the cue cards altogether. In fact, stop preparing notes for debates. You’re not going to win this based on your policy proposals or prepared statements. If you stick to displaying your presence and charm, and remind the audience that these other goofballs just aren’t presidential material, then this thing is yours for the taking.

Huckabee: He had some good lines, and he often comes across as the most sensible of the lot. But he has a similar problem to Obama – he just doesn’t have the commander-in-chief thing down – a critical threshold he needs to cross if he is really gonna compete. Everyone in the audience would be happy to elect him Arkansas Governor again – but President? I’m not seeing it.

And it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Mr. Paul. He got the loudest boos of the night for saying that the other candidates’ pro-war stances will result in a losing ticket next year. Of course, he’s right (and I don’t say that often). While a fierce pro-war stance might get them through the primary, if the GOP nominee doesn’t find a way to reposition his support for continuing the war, and distance himself from Mr. 24% Approval Rating, then they might as well throw in the towel.

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