From NBC's Chuck Todd
There were a few moments where it appeared McCain and Romney would really started tangling in tonight's CNN/L.A. Times/Politico debate, but it was just that, a precious few moments.
Romney wasn't happy about the criticism McCain leveled at him about timetables in Iraq. He said it was a dirty trick because it came days before Florida. Well, maybe so, but it should also serve as a comfort to nervous Republicans about McCain's ability to play hardball in the general. McCain may seem like a guy who likes to reach across the aisle but he's not afraid to get dirty. McCain will be a very clever general election candidate; it won't all be kumbaya with Clinton or Obama.
Romney's pushback, btw, that if this was an issue, then why didn't he raise it earlier, wasn't a great debate comeback moment. As I've noted before, Romney just doesn't come across well when he's angry.
Overall, Romney seemed simply ticked off. It was as if he realized the end was near and he didn't know how to stop it. He tried to go after McCain, politely mind you, but didn't trip the newly crowned frontrunner up.
The question Romney must be asking himself is what is his ultimate goal now? Should he do everything he can to stop McCain now or should he figure out how to run, but do so with dignity so he can keep his options open in the future, should McCain fail to win the general. As McCain is about to prove, the GOP regularly nominates the runners-up in previous primaries; Reagan, Bush and Dole to name a few. Romney, though, does need to play the conservative critic of McCain for a certain length of time in order to win the loyalty of the conservatives who aren't happy with McCain now. These folks could serve Romney well in '12 or '16.
McCain, in the role of frontrunner at a debate for the first time in nearly a year (well, actually, since the last time these guys met at the Reagan Library), proved to be more well spoken on domestic issues than he was at the last debate.
Going forward, assuming McCain is the GOP nominee, the Arizona Republican is going to have to get more comfortable talking about domestic issues or he will face much bigger problems in the general. He was better tonight on the domestic front, but he's still got a ways to go.
BTW, I love this spin from McCain that if his tax cut plan had gotten through in 2001, instead of Bush's, he would be able to propose new tax cuts now. Now there's some optimism!
The most difficult thing for many of us watching these debates for a living is that we're having a hard time finding new things to say just as the candidates are having a hard time saying anything new.
For instance, how many times have I written some version of the following: Mike Huckabee probably stuck out for his humor and seemingly straight talk. Yet again, Huckabee got to play Mr. Nice Guy and it will probably be enough to siphon off conservative vote from Romney in order to deliver McCain a few more delegates than he should be winning if this were a pure 1-on-1.
But McCain may have won this debate before it ever started because the Giuliani endorsement today and the Schwarzenegger endorsement tomorrow appear to be trumping anything that happened tonight.