For what it's worth, here are my awards for tonight's debate:
1. Best Debate.
Tonight's. It featured more good answers - substantively intelligent and/or politically shrewd - than any other debate.
2. Best exchange.
Thompson-Huckabee. Thompson launched a powerful attack on Huckabee from the right. Huckabee responded with a strong defense of his record that would have appealed to less ideological voters. Both were high quality minutes-and-a-half.
3. Most improved.
Thompson. Woke up, smelled the coffee, and showed his stuff.
4. Best in foreign policy.
McCain. Very strong and eloquent on the surge.
5. Failed to do what he had to do.
Romney. He had to get some momentum in Michigan. But after McCain slapped him down in the first exchange, Romney was passive and not much of a presence.
6. Best political skills.
Huckabee. The guy's unusually talented, and still underestimated inside the Beltway.
7. Helped himself in Michigan.
McCain. Strong as commander in chief, and held his own on economics.
8. Helped himself in South Carolina.
Huckabee. Boffo answer on religion.
9. Best joke.
10. Shadow of his former self.
Giuliani. Where did the zip go?
I had hoped Brit Hume's first question of Ron Paul in tonight's Republican presidential debate on Fox News would be this: "Where were you last Sunday night, Congressman Paul? We saw your supporters running around outside the studio in New Hampshire with cops chasing after them. We missed you in the debate." Paul, of course, wasn't invited to the Republican debate in New Hampshire, prompting him to complain bitterly and sending his backers into a tizzy. Alas, Hume didn't deliver.
But he wasn't exactly reverential toward Paul. Hume asked the Republican candidates how they felt about the response to harassment of American naval warships by Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz this week. Five of them backed the cautious response of the American commanders.
Then Paul sounded off, saying he disagreed with the belligerent talk of the other candidates. Paul said they wanted to put the country on the path to war with Iran. Hume was mystified. Hume asked Paul, whom was he referring to? The other candidates had advised caution, not a military response, Hume noted. Paul seemed perplexed and suggested he hadn't heard what his rivals had said. My guess is he wasn't listening.
That episode was the high point in the debate. But it wasn't the only thing of interest. Fred Thompson, now that his campaign is practically dead after he got one percent of the vote in New Hampshire, was far more energized than he had been in earlier debates. Who would've expected it? Not I.
And I was impressed with Mike Huckabee's continued ability to be witty. The former Baptist preacher, when asked a question on religion, noted that he's the only candidate to get such questions. He said he might as well pass the collection plate in the audience. Might as well "go all the way." His campaign could use the money. Okay, maybe you had to be watching to find that funny.
One more point. This was the third Republican debate in five days. Do we really need this many debates? The answer is no. I doubt the voters are demanding this many. I watched all three and I'm not demanding this many either. But I have to admit debates have mattered this primary season as never before. Without them, there'd have been no emergence of Huckabee as a leading candidate and perhaps no surge by John McCain.
For what it's worth, here's how I'd rank the performances of the candidates in the debate: 1) Huckabee 2) McCain 3) Thompson 4) Mitt Romney 5) Rudy Giuliani 6) Paul.
Clear winner? Fred Thompson. He was commanding, funny, articulate. His rat-a-tat-tat answer deconstructing Mike Huckabee's record was incredibly effective--a good actor can certainly memorize his lines. But Fred was good off the cuff, too. He does, at times, seem uninterested, especially when others are talking. He won the debate, but those cutaway shots don't help him. Still, Thompson has to have made strides among conservatives who are not yet sold on John McCain. He could have done more to engage McCain directly-- he did so once, but it was almost passive. Fredemption?