For the third time in six days, the Republican candidates gathered for a presidential debate in South Carolina on Thursday night. They say the presidential campaign isn't a sprint but a marathon. This week, it felt like a triathlon.
The pre-debate agendas for each candidate were clear. Rudy, Fred, and Mitt had to do something to lift themselves off the mat. McCain and Huckabee had to broaden their appeal while avoiding any catastrophic errors that would make a Mitt, Fred, or Rudy rebound more likely.
Oh, and Ron Paul had to stop embarrassing himself and the philosophy of libertarianism, something that seemed only slightly more likely than John McCain going the entire evening without saying "My friends."
So how did the contestants fare? In ascending order:
6) Ron Paul: Paul has become the Washington Generals of politicians, assuming the Generals had thousands of zealots who showed up every time they played the Globetrotters and cheered like lunatics whenever the Generals hoisted up a shot, regardless of whether or not it went in. Paul's sole function at these things is for the other candidates to point out his relentless silliness and score points at his expense. The cranky Texan provided a wealth of opportunities for righteous indignation this evening, and it was a sad commentary on the Republican field that only Brit Hume and Mike Huckabee effectively rebuked him.
5) Mitt Romney: The stakes were highest for Romney. He came into tonight's debate with a harsh, looming deadline. If he doesn't win in Michigan next Tuesday, he's pretty much done. Fred and Rudy at least don't have their respective final exams until South Carolina and Florida.
So it was an odd night for Romney to go invisible and say hardly anything original or inspiring. This was Romney's most lackluster debate performance of the entire campaign, and it came at a time when he could least afford it. If the guy who showed up in New Hampshire on Sunday showed up tonight, maybe Romney could have rallied. He still might, but this debate won't be the reason.
More below the fold.4) Rudy Giuliani: Giuliani has made himself utterly irrelevant. As if to underscore his irrelevance, his campaign sent out a photo during the debate of Rudy shaking Ronald Reagan's hand in the Oval Office. Wow! Gotta admit, that's pretty great. If that 25-year-old picture doesn't salt away Florida, I don't know what will.
3) John McCain: Tonight was like a microcosm of the senator's career. McCain is sometimes an inspiring and courageous leader. At other times, he seems to take a strange pleasure in being his own worst enemy.
McCain had some wonderful moments tonight. His role in making the surge happen can't be overstated. He also sounded great when talking about the Navy. It's not just McCain's biography that makes him a credible commander in chief. He really understands military matters, and that separates him from the field in both parties.
But there was also the other McCain, the one who seems to love to annoy conservatives for no apparent reason. Can anyone tell me why he opted to dance through the climate change minefield on his own volition? Why didn't he just go all in and offer some glowing praise for Al Gore's courageous leadership on that issue while he was at it?
As has been the case throughout his career, McCain had some good moments and some bad ones. The problem is his principal rival, Mike Huckabee, has good moments and great ones.
2) Fred Thompson: If he keeps this up, Thompson will wrest the title of most frustrating candidacy from Mitt Romney. When he asserted himself tonight, Fred was brilliant. But he doesn't assert himself nearly enough, especially for a guy with his standing in the polls.
Fred really has a great command of the issues. His comments on the economy were cogent and well-informed. He gets bonus points because his observations don't seem like the product of pre-debate cramming.
He had one of his best moments of his campaign when he attacked Mike Huckabee for some of the former Arkansas governor's more liberal positions. Fred spoke for many Republicans who have qualms about Huckabee. Problem is, Fred was attacking an exceptionally skilled politician.
1) Mike Huckabee: Huckabee deftly parried Thompson's aggressive and spirited attacks early in the debate. It was a battle on terrain that was unfriendly to Huckabee, and Thompson attacked with skill. And yet Huckabee got out of the exchange unscathed.
The exchange with Thompson came early in the debate, and Huckabee was just getting warmed up. For the first time in this campaign, Huckabee looked like a credible commander in chief when the conversation turned to those Iranian speedboats. His normal joviality vanished, replaced by an appropriate gravity.
Then he got even better. He seized on a characteristic piece of Ron Paul idiocy to give a spirited speech defending America's commitment to Israel. Again, he looked credible as a commander in chief. But this was also an extremely shrewd piece of politicking. Conservative foreign policy types obviously loved it as did pro-Israel people. But Huckabee's core audience of conservative Christians, a much larger segment of the society than either of the other two groups, adored it also.
Mike Huckabee's an exceptional politician whose package of skills is often sold short. He's a lot more than an affable dispenser of one-liners who only knows how to play to the home crowd. For people who might be inclined to dismiss Huckabee, compare his response to Thompson's adroit offensive with McCain's blundering into the climate warming thicket. These two are the likely finalists, and one of them is much better at politics than the other.
Here's what I said on November 28, the night of the YouTube debate, the night that catapulted Huckabee to his huge lead in Iowa: "Was this a seismic night? I'll give that one a big yes. Tonight heralded the arrival of Mike Huckabee as a force in this race. Not a spoiler, not a wildcard, but a force."
Although fewer people watched last evening's festivities, tonight was even bigger for Huckabee. For the first time, it was not only possible but easy to imagine Huckabee as the leader of 300 million people. He combined this newfound authority with his old standbys of off-the-charts likability and a deft way of tapping into aspirational politics.
In the race for the Republican nomination, Mike Huckabee is going to be tough to beat.