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First thoughts: A big night for Huckabee

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** A big night for Huckabee: At a debate where many voters were looking at him in a different light, thanks in large part to his rise in the polls and the dramatic increase in attention the press has given him, Huckabee delivered. Big time. Unlike previous debates, he didn't open with a joke but instead sounded very presidential in his first answer. He had his share of one-liners -- the best being the one about Jesus would never have run for higher office -- but he seemed to balance the funny with more presidential rhetoric. Huckabee definitely stepped up his game last night. Surprisingly, he didn't get attacked too much. Romney took a shot at him on immigration, but nothing too harsh (Iowa nice, right?). Most

important for Huckabee, he'll likely be declared the winner of this debate by every member of the Amtrak Corridor media elite, and that should get him some serious buzz. The question for the rest of the field: When will others begin to take him as a more serious threat? And how happy will Romney and Rudy be once December 12 passes and there aren't anymore debates where Huckabee will once again overperform before Iowa?

*** Sanctuary mansions? Giuliani was not at his best last night. He started off slow as his "sanctuary mansion" line, which was not delivered very well, seemed to fall flat. (How many viewers realized that Rudy was talking about illegal immigrants working on Romney's yard? It took us a while to notice that's what he was referring to.). Also, someone in his campaign should help him learn to give a MUCH shorter answer when talking about guns. The best part of Giuliani's performance was his YouTube video; it was the funniest of the bunch.

VIDEO: NBC's Political Director Chuck Todd discusses the nature of the disagreement between Giuliani and Romney, and the overall results of these Republican debates.

*** Mitt the lightning rod: Romney had an uneven night as well. At some moments -- like

in his first exchange with Rudy over immigration -- he was outstanding. And at other times -- on the Confederate flag, black-on-black violence, and waterboarding -- he was just awful. It was THAT uneven of a performance. He seems to be struggling with getting very aggressive against Giuliani and trying to softly jab at Huckabee. It's not easy position. What also isn't easy is how Romney seemed to take flak from all the other candidates. Rudy went after him on "sanctuary mansions"; McCain blasted him on torture; Fred went after him on his shifting abortion views; and Huck even whipped out the class card during their showdown over college scholarships for illegal immigrants. Mitt has certainly become a lightning rod in the GOP field, somewhat reminiscent to Dean in 2004. Can he withstand all the slings and arrows? And is Romney any current presidential candidate's second choice for the White House?

*** McCain makes an impression: The other candidate that certainly made an impression was McCain, thanks to his sobriety. It's interesting, Huckabee-McCain would be a fascinating ticket because Huckabee likes to be the sunny good cop, while McCain seems to be getting comfortable becoming the (sometimes) pessimistic bad cop. McCain was strong,

but bordered on angry too many times to make us think he's going to play well in Iowa (a place that he needs to start getting some traction). That said, if you were trying to pick which candidate looked "presidential" last night, McCain would probably be your choice. 

*** Best supporting actor? Thompson seemed more comfortable in this debate than in his first two outings. But just because he was comfortable doesn't mean he had enough great moments. He seemed like a supporting member of the cast -- rather than a centerpiece of the debate. His shots at Giuliani and Romney were probably lines that sounded better in his head than when he delivered them. Still, Thompson's more comfortable appearance seemed to make a good impression with the chattering class.

*** The rest: Paul does a pretty good job of sounding rational when posed with somewhat irrational questions. His trilateral commission answer didn't sound conspiratorial even though the whole premise of the question is just that: conspiratorial. And regarding Hunter and Tancredo, they really don't belong on stage anymore. Guys, it's time to go. The other six have proven viability; the two of you haven't. And if it weren't for the debates, you'd have no platform. Frankly, many people probably forgot the two men were still running since it had been so long since the Republicans last debated...

*** Good news, bad news: On the Democratic side, the good news for Team Clinton is that last night's debate has overshadowed Bill Clinton's remarks on the Iraq war. The bad

news for them is that there's very little coverage of Hillary's tough speech on health care yesterday, which was aimed squarely at Obama. Will today's news in the Washington Post -- a former Condoleezza Rice aide, who claims that Bill Clinton told Rice's team that he supported the invasion -- overshadow Hillary's interesting appearance at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church today? By the way, Clinton today hits Obama again on health care, so this is clearly something that they don't plan to let up on even if the media aren't that interested in covering this spat. Of course, that's what paid media is for sometimes, right? It won't be a shock if the first "contrast" paid media from Clinton involves doing a health-care coverage scorecard comparing all of the Democratic candidates.

*** On the trail: Elsewhere today, Biden campaigns in New Hampshire, where he speaks at a town hall meeting on Iraq; Edwards, in Iowa, speaks to the Iowa State Association of Counties and later the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council; Huckabee appears on Hardball; Kucinich holds a rally and then a fundraiser in New York; McCain has a media avail in St. Petersburg, FL; Obama holds a fundraiser/rally at the historic Apollo Theater in New York City; Richardson has a meet-and-greet at the International Immigrants Foundation in New York; Romney raises money in Florida; Tancredo is in New Hampshire; and Thompson hits a fundraiser and then holds a media avail in Phoenix, AZ. Also, Michelle Obama stumps in Iowa.

Countdown to Iowa: 35 days
Countdown to New Hampshire: 40 days
Countdown to Michigan: 47 days
Countdown to Nevada and SC GOP primary: 51 days
Countdown to SC Dem primary: 58 days
Countdown to Florida: 61 days
Countdown to Tsunami Tuesday: 68 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 341 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 418 days

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