Quick observations from the debate:
Huckabee was great. He's funny, he's engaging, and if he was at all qualified to serve as commander in chief, he might have won this thing. The self-aware pandering on highways, his first-strike against Anderson Cooper, and his refusal to dishonor Reagan in Reagan's house were all expert. And of course, he now benefits from being a marginal figure and a potential spoiler--no one is going after him.
Romney didn't do enough to change the fundamental dynamic of this race. He scrapped with McCain over the timetables question, but any time Romney spends talking about Iraq is bound to end up a draw at best. No one is under the impression that he now wants out of Iraq, but his statements from late 2006 and early 2007 do not evince strong leadership. And on the merits, I'm not convinced he won the argument. McCain responded that "timetables" was liberal code for retreat, and that Romney should have just said no. It was effective enough.
McCain improved as the evening wore on, and as the conversation shifted to national security. CNN's crack debate team tried repeatedly to push him into a corner, particularly on immigration and the Bush tax cuts. In each instance, he gave answers that were intended to appease his conservative critics. They may not have been terribly effective in that regard, but there was no damage done to him from the exchanges either. And on the issue of global warming--at least he didn't go out of his way to antagonize conservatives. He's committed to cap-and-trade, but in explaining why he emphasized the potential economic benefits of investing in green technologies, and he took great pains to make clear that he might be wrong about climate change.
McCain also got in a great dig in at Romney when he said that he'd led the largest squadron in the Navy and had "done it for patriotism and not for profit." Just seconds later he mentioned his time as a POW--a debate first, I think. John Podhoretz captures the result:
I know it is supposedly a great calling card that Romney ran the Salt Lake City Olympics, but saying it directly after John McCain talked about his time in the Hanoi Hilton might not be the best timing in the world.
In the end, Romney couldn't land the knock out punch. And he didn't say anything that will make it on to the local news tomorrow night. (One wonders just how many Republicans were really watching this affair? Anderson Cooper was insufferable, and Republicans don't like CNN to begin with. Many may have tuned out early.)
So the news tomorrow will be dominated not by debate coverage but by McCain's endorsements, from Rudy and Arnold, by the end of the Edwards campaign, and by the looming battle between Obama and Hillary. Romney missed his chance, and it's not clear that he'll get another.