From NBC's Chuck Todd
It's 74 days until the Iowa caucuses (actually, just under 1800 hours)
and clearly all of the major GOP candidates were feeling that pressure
at Sunday night's debate. All of them were full of energy and had
one-liners and barbs at the ready. For that reason, I'm having a hard
time singling out a winner because everyone in the so-called 1st and
2nd tier was VERY prepared tonight.
The first 25 minutes of the debate was simply red-hot but then, almost
as if on cue with the first pitch of Game 7 of the Red Sox-Indians and
the kickoff of the Steelers-Broncos game, the debate stopped creating
too many newsworthy moments.
Nothing like practice for Thompson. He seemed much more comfortable
than at the CNBC/MSNBC/WSJ debate earlier this month. He got a nice
assist from the Fox News folks by having Thompson critiques of Rudy and
Romney as the first questions to each of the two supposed frontrunners.
And it also gave Thompson a chance to "win" that initial round of the
debate. And then about an hour into the debate, Brit Hume used
Thompson's position on entitlement reform as the basis of questions to
all of the frontrunners and contrasted them to Thompson in a way that
allowed Thompson to look like the brave "bold" leader on the issue.
That said, between Fox News and Giuliani, it seems Thompson was put a
bit on the defensive on a few issues, including so-called tort reform,
No Child Left Behind and even abortion. But his energy level was WAY
up; suddenly seemed like a candidate who'd been on the trail for a
while. His best answer may have been during the bizarre round of
anti-Hillary questioning. He didn't try and followup on the cheap shots
from his opponents, but instead emphasized the need for the party to
nominate someone with core principles. And did we mention he got in the
last word? Overall, the Thompson folks should be ecstatic about
tonight; it was setup well for him.
Neither Giuliani nor Romney stumbled but it did seem Romney was still
slightly dazed from the last debate since he was on the defensive early
on in the debate (more so than his chief foes), even from the
moderators who asked about his "lawyers" line regarding key military
Giuliani doesn't seem interested in playing a prevent defense; he had
no problem going right after Thompson at one of the Tennessee senator's
conservative weak spots: tort reform. In previous debates, Rudy seemed
more interested in finding a good one-liner to make a point and try to
stay above the fray. Tonight, he showed a more serious, yet biting side
that New Yorkers got used to in the '90s. Giuliani is proving to be one
of the better pure debaters on stage; he's very good at evading attacks
while striking back on another topic and changing the subject.
McCain was once again the sober guy on stage. And he may have gotten
off the line of the night, when he took his turn at bashing Hillary
over some apparent Woodstock museum. The one-time P.O.W. McCain noted
that he didn't attend Woodstock, he was, um, tied up. Everyone roared
with laughter. McCain also had one of the toughest zingers I've seen
yet in a debate when he said (apparently of Romney but he may have also
been targeting Giuliani): "I didn't manage for profit, I led for
patriotism." McCain also showed he's unafraid to show distance from
Pres. Bush. His line about seeing into the eyes of Putin just three
letters, "K.G.B." was a clear dig at Bush who saw into Putin's "soul."
Can you tell McCain's now a candidate with nothing left to lose?
McCain and Huckabee have benefitted in previous debates because the
other candidates would duck some questions those two wouldn't. Tonight,
because Giuliani, Romney and Thompson were all red hot, McCain and,
particularly, Huckabee, had a harder time standing out. This is not
good news for Huckabee who needs to stand out via earned media whenever
possible since he doesn't have a competitive bankroll.
But overall, this was a debate where every one of the major candidates
were on their game and in cases like this, it was hard for anyone to
BTW, it's now 3-0 Boston in the bottom of the 4th. Back to baseball or football or "Desperate Housewives."