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Hayes: Republican Debate

9:17 PM, Jan 5, 2008 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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This was a helpful debate for the man who probably had the least to gain from it: John McCain. He was funny, spirited and seemed well-informed. Even in the squabbles in the group he seemed like the adult in the room.

In what had to be one of the most important moments of the night, Mitt Romney gave John McCain credit for the political courage he showed in pushing the surge when it wasn't popular. This comes after two weeks of back-and-forth between the campaigns and three days before the New Hampshire primary critical to both men.

McCain did not return the love. He dinged Romney with several very effective one-liners, including a couple in which the cutaway shots had Romney looking nonplussed. Among them: On Romney's claims that McCain supported Social Security benefits for illegal immigrants: "You can spend your whole fortune on those attack ads, my friend, but it still won't be true." On Romney's claims that he is the candidate of change, McCain took a shot at his flip-flops: "We disagree on many issues but I agree that you are the candidate of change." And on Romney's claim that he was misquoted in an AP story: "When you change your positions as often as you do, you will get misquoted from time to time." He did these things with a smile on his face, which kept him from appearing nasty.

Romney struggled. The other candidates came ready to attack or, as he might put it, contrast their positions from his. In one of the lines of the night, Huckabee mocked Romney's complaints about Huckabee's attacks on his positions. "Which one?" Huckabee asked. Romney best moment came, ironically, on something that won't help him politically. He offered a smart defense of the role of pharmaceutical companies when John McCain foolishly said they were bad guys.

Huckabee also had a good night. He has a knack for explaining things in language that causes me to imagine hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country nodding their heads. He spoke of the "health care maze, and anyone who has tried to get approval from an insurance company nodded his head. After Mitt Romney spoke hypothetically about a $1000 charge for a hospital visit, Huckabee brought it home. "You said about a thousand dollars for a repair," he said, in comments directed to Romney. "It's about a thousand dollars for a Kleenex in a hospital now." He struggled on foreign policy and national security issues, but none of the other candidates took the opportunity to make him pay for his ignorance on those issues.

Rudy Giuliani performed adequately, but he did little to help him stand out at a time when he is desperate for news coverage. He also had a good shot at Mitt Romney's expense when he reminded the audience that Ronald Reagan once favored amnesty and suggested that having done so would likely have resulted in his appearance in a Romney negative ad. And Giuliani's team would do their candidate a favor if they advised him to stop engaging Ron Paul on 9/11, national security, foreign policy. It worked for him once, but he's now done it in just about every debate since their first dust-up. It's stale.

Fred Thompson's performance in the debate was a microcosm of his performance in the campaign: When he participated, he did well. He articulated conservative positions in a way that should help him. He was, as usual, strongest on national security. But he probably didn't speak up enough to get rank-and-file conservatives to volunteer for his campaign or, perhaps more importantly, to open their checkbooks.

One final note. Charlie Gibson will inevitably take a lot of grief for his lenient enforcement of time limits and debate rules. He should be praised for it. He restraint, and his willingness to allow the candidates to engage one another, is one of the reasons that this debate was one of the best of this campaign.