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Tape-delayed debate analysis

From NBC's Chuck Todd
I had to watch on TiVo tonight... I
started watching the debate live around 10pm and then stopped myself
and watched from the beginning on tape delay. The last two debates on
ABC were both taped delayed for those of us in D.C., so I'm getting
used to filing late these days. BTW, what did we ever do before TiVO,
but I digress.

There were three clear winners tonight: Giuliani, Huckabee and Thompson. And there was one big loser tonight: Romney.

Let's
start with the winners: Thompson came out a winner within the first
five minutes thanks to the moderator's opening question about the
candidate-to-be's decision to go on Jay Leno instead of showing up for
this debate. The fact that every candidate (including Giuliani, Romney,
Huckabee and even McCain) took potshots (a few of which were even a bit
cheap) reinforced the idea that the entire Republican field views
Thompson as a major candidate, a major threat and one of the
frontrunners. The Thompson folks could not have asked for a better
setup.

As for the two winners of the debate who actually
participated, Giuliani's performance was particularly strong, perhaps
his best debate to date. He's clearly comfortable being the
frontrunner; he absorbs the attacks from opponents without looking as
if that opponent matters. His strongest answers were in defense of NOT
signing the no-tax pledge and on guns. Judging by how Giuliani treated
his opponents on stage, one gets the sense the only candidate Giuliani
fears is Thompson since he's the only candidate Rudy truly engaged.

Huckabee
doing well at a debate is about as common as the sun rising in the
east. In particular, the exchange with Ron Paul where Huckabee got to
defend McCain, defend the surge and also call Iraq a mistake was, dare
I say, a mix of Reagan and Clinton. He was just smooth and showed
himself as someone who is a good conservative Republican who could be a
very electable Republican nominee.

The big loser tonight (of the
top tier candidates) was Romney. He certainly didn't have any friends
among the debate questioners and the diner patrons and that kept Romney
on the defensive all night. (Will his campaign question how much
they've been sucking up to Fox, btw?) In all seriousness, Romney's got
to figure out how to turn all these attacks into a positive; Wednesday
night was not a great night for the candidate purported to be ahead in
the early states.

As for the rest of the field, McCain was a bit
uneven. At times, he was funny and loose; at other times, he was almost
OVERLY serious and a bit tight. That uneven mix kept me from calling
him one of my winners. Brownback seems less and less relevant (why did
he stay in after his poor Ames Straw poll showing?); Tancredo seemed
almost a non-factor; Hunter is very good at playing the Patriot card
but what part of the party does Hunter represent that the frontrunners
aren't representing?; Ron Paul was as angry as he's been; At one point,
I was simply wondering why he just didn't scream, "Hey kids, GET OFF MY
LAWN!"

The next post has my tape-delayed as-I-was-watching thoughts: