I wouldn’t dream of ludicrously and arrogantly taking any measure of credit for CNN/YouTube’s debate moderator being anyone other than Wolf Blitzer, but Anderson Cooper certainly did a fine job. Generally, he made sure that candidates answered the questions – something he said was owed to all the people who sent so much time asking questions – and added a colloquial charm. He prefaced Mitt Romney’s answer to a question about farm subsidies with a warning, that “a lot of folks in Iowa [are] interested in this answer.” Cooper most amusing moment came after Fred Thompson’s ad was shown, which, rather than highlight Thomson, simply attacked Romney and Mike Huckabee. Cooper’s informal, “Senator Thompson, what’s up with that?” drew a good bit of laughter. Overall, the event, unlike some of its torturous predecessors, was fun to watch, and actually lived up to its “debate” status, as candidates spent time arguing back and forth on a number of points. Now that that’s out of the way, on to the candidates…

Mike Huckabee, thanks to his recent rise in Iowa polls, enjoyed more face time than he had in previous debates. With, he claimed, people more worried about an audit than a mugging, Huck called for an end to the IRS, proposing to replace it with the so-called “fair tax”, a federal retail sales tax. He slickly tried to explain his way out of in-state tuition for illegals, but no amount of sugar coating was going to keep Mitt Romney from blasting Huck for having fought for the “right to give scholarships to illegals.” When asked, “What would Jesus do?” about the death penalty, Huck eloquently explained the difficult decisions he had to make before finally suggesting that Jesus was too smart to run for public office. Huck somehow equated being gay as bad conduct in the military, a suggestion which reeked of intolerance. Finally, Huck seemed ok with government spending on a human mission to Mars, provided Hillary Clinton was on the first rocket.

Ron Paul again won the all the CNN exit polls for best performance, most knowledgeable, etc., but despite his recent upswing in the early primary states, he was given his usual, i.e. minimal, face time. Asked if he believed in a conspiracy theory of a North American government, he simply stated that with trade agreements such as NAFTA, eminent domain claiming huge amounts of property for an international roadway conspiracy, and having witnessed the European Union come into existence, that a threat does exist to our national sovereignty, and that he opposes any move toward more international government bureaucracies. After John McCain said that the Republicans came to change government, and the government changed them, Paul stated unequivocally that Washington had not changed him, and that he had never once voted for a tax increase. He argued that lowering taxes is only half the solution, with the necessary complement being a reduction in spending. As for which government bureaucracies should be slashed, Paul cited the Departments of Education, Energy, and Homeland Security, which he called our biggest bureaucracy ever. He argued that out national defense would become stronger by changing our interventionist foreign policy, reiterating that we should bring the troops home. Paul argued that despite the moral question of occupying another country that we should be giving back to them, he stated that we can’t afford to keep up such wars, because as tax payer dollars are used to blow up and rebuild the same bridges in Iraq, our own bridges and infrastructure are crumbling. Finally, he likened Iraq to Vietnam, which is now a friend, a result, he says, achievable in peace that was never possible in 20 years of war.

John McCain spent time with troops over the holiday, and said that they had urged him to let them win in Iraq. He then challenged Ron Paul by claiming that isolationist policies had caused World War II. Paul pounced, citing the difference between isolationism and his policy of non-intervention, and proved the popularity of his position by pointing out that he had received the more campaign contributions from active duty personnel than any other candidate. Oddly, when asked how he would repair America’s image in the eyes of the Muslim world, McCain said he would continue the surge of troops, which he insisted was working. McCain received a groan of disbelief from the audience when he said that they in the government had never proposed amnesty for illegals, arguing instead that voters didn’t trust them after failures in Katrina and Iraq and the inability to reign in spending. He said, as president, he would veto every pork barrel spending bill that crossed his desk and would make the authors famous. He later hit the replay button, and said the exact same thing. McCain argued against Huckabee’s fair tax plan, which he claimed would tax some people up to 30%, and then bested Romney in a challenge over his wishy washy waterboarding stance. McCain insisted that we, as a nation, take the high road, and never allow torture to be used.

Surprisingly, Fred Thompson decided to make a public appearance, and was at the debate. He casually chatted about issues and candidates, hoping to pass by on the strength of his famous charm. He mentioned that, “surprisingly,” Romney had switched his position on amnesty for illegals. Thompson suggested that sometimes a decision to hire someone can, in retrospect, be a bad idea, a veiled reference Rudy Giuliani hiring to Bernard Kerik, though Thompson could have been referring to his own apparent decision of employing Richard Nixon’s makeup artist for the debate. In a weird moment, when asked which programs he would cut, he instead talked about saving Social Security and creating private Medicare accounts which would be matched by the government. Each candidate was allowed a 30-second ad spot, and Thompson’s was an attack on Romney and Huckabee. When questioned, he innocently stated that he just wanted to give his buddies on stage some more air time. Fred questioned Giuliani on his past support of gun control in New York City, but then lost the argument by going too far in comparing crime-ridden, no-guns-allowed Washington DC to New York, where guns are allowed and where crime decreased substantially under Rudy. Thompson didn’t win any extra friends in Hollywood when he stated that the number one focus should be to overturn Roe v Wade. Probably Fred’s best moment was when a question was asked by an animated caricature of Dick Cheney. Fred said he breathed a sigh of relief when he realized that it was Cheney and not him.

Mitt Romney seemed to spend all his time picking fights or responding to attacks. He started the debate by jumping on Giuliani for running an amnesty city, but then had to defend himself against accusations that he had personally employed illegal workers in his mansion. Mitt smacked Huck into reality by claiming that the money the Huck used for scholarships and tuition was, as tax payer money, not his to use on illegals. Romney said, as governor, he found a way to have universal health care without increasing government, which was contradictory, but in this debate he wised up, mentioning it once and then leaving it alone. Romney said he supported farm subsidies, because they were doing it in Brazil and Europe, which seemed to leave him open for attack until Rudy agreed with him. Romney’s odd solution to reduce black-on-black crime was to “get more moms and dads” and, perhaps more usefully, to ensure proper education and to increase state police. Mitt then went on about how he had increased state police, though some crimes increased while others decreased, and then threw in something about tripling a DNA facility. He said he believed every word of the Bible, as it is the “word of God”. When attacked on his abortion flip-flop, he stated that he was wrong and had made a mistake, which might have been more convincing if he hadn’t changed positions on so many other issues as well, leading viewers to wonder on which other issues he will eventually realize he is wrong. He did finish strongly, saying that there was nothing sweeter than when his Red Sox beat the Yankees after being down 3-0 in a best of 7 series.

Rudy Giuliani directly debated Romney and Thompson, usually coming out on top. He cited his record of significant crime reduction in New York City, which was unlike Romney’s “mixed record” on crime. He corrected Thompson on his gun control views, stating that he favored restrictions on gun ownership for criminals and the mentally challenged. Rudy also cited his fiscally conservative record as mayor, and suggested that government spending could easily be reduced by simply not replacing half the workers on the government payroll when they retire. Unlike Romney, Rudy said he would not sign a hypothetical federal ban on abortion (following a hypothetical overturn of Roe v Wade), claiming that it should be left up to the individual states. Rudy also differed from Mitt and Huck by saying he did not believe the Bible was entirely literal, but rather that it was interpretive and certainly contained allegories. Rudy said he would stay on the offensive against Muslim extremists, though that didn’t seem to answer the question of how he would improve the Muslim world’s image of the US. Asked why blacks should support him, Rudy argued for school vouchers, so parents would not be forced to send their kids to bad and unsafe schools. He also preached reducing welfare, which he did as mayor, to get more people jobs, and with that, hope and a future. Rudy chastised McCain, saying that the line item veto was unconstitutional, not according to the senator, but according to the Supreme Court. Rudy’s 30-second video clip was amusing, claiming that Rudy had battled crime, overspending and “King Kong”, and that Hillary Clinton had called him a “$%#!” He defended rooting for the Red Sox, a logical argument, as he is an American League fan, but, more important than that, he said, he counted 4 Yankee World Championships among his accomplishments as mayor.

Duncan Hunter stuck to his strategy of not arguing with anyone, and bringing up a few flag-waving points. “I built that fence!” he bellowed, which resulted in significant crime reduction in San Diego, and pledged, as president, to compete the already approved fence across the rest of Mexican border. Hunter stated that China is cheating on trade and using the surplus to arm itself, so he urged everyone to “buy American…this Christmas season”. He said he would never apologize for the US, as we had helped defend, feed and heal so many other countries. He finished poorly, suggesting that forcing conservative Christians to work with homosexuals in the military was wrong, apparently ignoring the moral problems inherent in such a segregationist ideal.

Tom Tancredo again took time to acknowledge that he doesn’t get much time to talk. He stated he had the highest rating from conservative and tax reform groups. He refused to accept the oft-stated theory in support of illegals, arguing that there is no such thing as a job an American won’t take. He called for a change in trade relations with China. An introduction to the debate, a song by a YouTuber, stated that Tancredo wants the border fence, so Tom didn’t have to bother mentioning it. Tancredo pounced on Huckabee after Huck had ok’ed a mission to Mars, stating that while so many people say they are conservative, they are more than willing to spend more money on new programs. He argued that there are some things we can not afford.

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