The Republican debate from Florida on Fox News was chock full of Hillary Clinton bashing, and raised the bar on intra-party attacks. Immediately following the debate, despite the top-tier candidates receiving more than their share of time, Fox’s text poll gave the win to Ron Paul, with Mike Huckabee finishing in second place. That may have not seemed accurate, if only because Paul and Huckabee had far less face time than Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and likely winner Rudy Giuliani. On to the highlights…

Despite Sean Hannity’s insistence that his own poll was rigged, Ron Paul won the “Who won the debate” text poll. If Hannity stopped to think, he might have realized that considering Paul’s clear distinction between the rest of the field (against the war, for ending the income tax, and for gay marriage), a plurality is hardly unreasonable. Paul claimed that 70% of Americans want the war over, and even assuming a half Rep-half Dem mix where all Democrats are anti-war, that would still mean that 40% of Republicans want the war ended. Along with his usual vocal fan base, Ron Paul also endured some negative reactions from the crowd, but certainly offered some unique ideas. He insisted that seniors who have paid into Social Security should be protected, but he said young people should be allow to get out of the failing system. He stated that since the Federal Reserve took over in 1913, the dollar, in real terms, is worth only 4 cents, and that the government must be removed from such systems where it doesn’t Constitutionally belong. Paul found the gay marriage question silly, stating simply that marriage is a religious institution, and that the government has no right to involve itself in any private relationship, whether social or economic, between people. He stated a need to end imperialism, claiming Republican candidates from Eisenhower to Nixon to Bush have been elected on peace and isolationist platforms. Paul stressed that Republicans and the US need to have a common sense foreign policy, and must return to a Constitutionally mandated limited government, rather than accept the Democrats’ ideas of entitlement and deficits.

According to the poll, Mike Huckabee came in second. Huck suggested that prevention was the key to lowering health care costs, claiming that a whopping 80% of costs are spent on chronic diseases. He got some laughs when he said that the Medicare and Medicaid problems would only be compounded when “all the old hippies” find out they can get free drugs. He said the books on Social Security were drawn up so that seniors would start collecting benefits at 65, and were expected to die at 67. He said that that wasn’t going to happen, unless we “take them out”, which he quickly insisted was not a good idea. Huck said he likes to be funny, but said “There is nothing funny about Hillary Clinton being president.” He claimed that she would be a disaster, with health care in the federal domain, rising taxes, out of control spending, and a loss of military morale.

Rudy Giuliani had a pretty good night, reminding voters of George Will’s claim that as New York’s mayor, Rudy had run the most conservative government in the last half century. In response to charges that many teachers disliked him, Rudy claimed that while there are good, average and bad teachers, he, frankly, cared more about the kids. To that end, he stated that parents, rather than Board of Education officials or bureaucrats, should have the right to choose where their own children go to school. Rudy also got plenty of laughs and cheers. He blew a kiss to Florida (where the debate was held), thanking them for not electing Al Gore in 2000, and promised that his party would not, unlike the Democrats, be boycotting the state. He attacked Hillary Clinton a few times, using her own words against her, quoting “I have a million ideas. America can’t afford them all.” “No kidding, Hillary,” he continued, “America can’t afford you!” Unlike in past debates, Rudy did seem to run a bit to the right. Despite a reputation of being relatively gay-friendly, he said he would support an amendment banning gay marriage if a critical mass (5, 6 or some other random number) of states allowed gay marriage. He had performed 210 marriages as NYC mayor, and all between “a man and a woman… I hope.”

Perhaps the harshest words came from John McCain, whose blistering attack on Mitt Romney may have opened the way for all out Republican in-fighting. “Governor Romney,” McCain said, “you’ve been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don’t want you to start fooling them about mine.” McCain suggested that anyone who believes Hillary opinions on health care should go visit Canada before deciding. His best line came when blasting Hillary’s overspending, specifically her attempt to federally fund a Woodstock museum: “I’m sure it was a cultural and [pause] pharmaceutical event,” but said he missed it, as he was “tied up at the time”, in reference to his ordeal as a POW. McCain, in a slight against President Bush, said he looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw “three letters: KGB.” He then misspoke, suggesting that the US put missile defense shields in Czechoslovakia, a country which hasn’t existed for some time. While he certainly had some key moments, McCain seemed resigned in repeating that he is running on his conservative record, and seemed almost tired and unable to understand why he hasn’t been able to muster more support.

Fred Thompson had a better debate than the last (a week off from campaigning will do that), but was still tossed some softballs – Have Rudy and Mitt convinced you? Are you lazy? – allowing him to win favor with his humor rather than his answers. Thompson was attacked by Rudy for voting against every meaningful tort reform, and questioned about his private work for Planned Parenthood despite his Pro-life voting record. Fred had some good moments. He claimed that the major flaw in the Democrats’ plan to continue to raise taxes on the rich was that according to the Democrats, everybody who “works for a living” is rich, and he added that the Democratic vision of a “comfortable mediocrity” is unacceptable. On the downside, when discussing the No Child Left Behind program, for which he voted and now says he opposes, he paradoxically suggested a scenario where each child scores a 90 on the test, but doesn’t learn anything. He concluded by addressing his “laziness” label awkwardly, stating that he has 5 kids, two under the age of 4. Presumably, that could suggest he’s not lazy, or it could suggest that he had taken Bob Dole’s little blue pill advice.

Mitt Romney had a fairly poor night, suggesting his best days may be behind him. Taking a page from Hillary Clinton’s debate play book, Romney suggested that all the Republican candidates are not like Hillary Clinton (apparently excluding his tactic), and shared Ronald Reagan’s conservatism. For his state health care plan, Romney was attacked by Fred Thompson, who claimed Romney was left of Ted Kennedy, which also left Thompson open for a Groucho-type line: “I didn’t know there was any room to the left of Ted Kennedy. I didn’t know there was any room to the right either.” Romney defended his plan, again insisting on state-run, mandated, universal health care, while awkwardly claiming that the government wouldn’t be involved. Romney did nothing to show tolerance, claiming that gay marriage was a “threat” to religion, and suggested it could “spread”, like a disease, across the nation.

Duncan Hunter again used his precious little time on some odd talking points. Hunter somehow hoped to garner votes by reminding everyone that Reagan helped freedom fighters in El Salvador, while JFK alienated the anti-Castro forces at the Bay of Pigs. He also suggested a joint missile defense system with an increasingly hostile Vladimir Putin. Hunter’s best moment came when he joined the bash-Romney party, citing the numerous costly mandates contained in Romney’s health care plan, including fertility care for 90-year-olds. While “we may appreciate Governor Romney’s optimism,” Hunter’s point on the overextension of mandated coverage was clear.

In his limited time, Tom Tancredo, citing watch group ratings, stated that he was the most conservative of the Republican candidates, and his claim seemed to be backed up by his limited government economic ideas and imposing social issue agenda. Tancredo disagreed with the discussion of how much government should be involved in health care, instead insisting that the Federal government should not be at all involved. Though later than expected, he eventually got around to his central issue, citing the $1 billion California paid for health care to treat illegal immigrants, and a ridiculous, suggested plan to give Social Security benefits to them. He had a good line – after citing the recent Armenian genocide resolution and the Democrats’ “complete ignorance” of foreign policy implications – calling Nancy Pelosi a “lousy House Speaker, and an even worse Secretary of State.”

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