Sometimes the key thing in a debate is not the overall impression, but a candidate’s ability to hit a specific point that important groups of voters care deeply about. A candidate could stumble a bit overall throughout the debate, but if he is the only one to use a certain phrase or take a certain position that is essential for a sizable plurality of the target audience, that candidate wins an important below-the-radar victory in terms of actually securing votes.
That said, Giuliani did well in being the only candidate to specifically identify the challenge as “Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.”
Hunter did well (politically, not necessarily on substance) to be the only one to consistently hit the trade issue and specifically link it to China and national security and jobs all at once — which could serve him in very good stead in the important primary state of South Carolina. (The WSJ might cringe at his answer, and I tend to be a free trader myself, but it is important to recognize how big a political issue this is and how in tune with main-street public opinion Hunter is on this.)
Huckabee (who was eloquent throughout the night) did well not to try to separate faith from policy, but instead to say “My faith explains me.” He did it in a way attractive to Evangelicals WITHOUT, somehow, being threatening to people who fear the mix of church and state, because Huck made it clear he was talking about his own approach, his overall worldview, rather than to any particular doctrinal position.
Gilmore did the best job of presenting himself as a trustworthy tax cutter.
Romney did perhaps the best job of appealing to the still-substantial number of die-hard Bush fans within the GOP electorate by giving an eloquent defense of Bush’s MOTIVES in going into Iraq, to protect the country. Say what you will about the competence in carrying out the project in Iraq, it is just despicable for the Dems and the press to attribute nefarious motives to Bush on this front. Give the guy (Bush) credit for acting on deep beliefs, whether or not you agree with his decisions. Huge numbers of Republican voters sense Bush’s sincerity and REALLY resent the smears, the calumny, hurled his way, as if he is sending our soldiers to die out of some weird greed or other sick motives.
As I noted in an earlier post, only Tancredo said he would pardon Scooter Libby. This might not be a big deal to rank and file voters, but to activists who actually volunteer, this is a huge deal. Fred Thompson already (if I remember correcrly) has called for a pardon, and his stature rises even more for having had the guts to do so, now that nine of the ten announced candidate have run for the hills, tails between legs, on the issue.
I also think I noted earlier that Duncan Hunter said the right thing on Terry Schiavo, while the others hemmed and hawed. Congress did NOT try to tell a court what to do; Congress merely provided federal courts the jurisdiction for another review of the case, because so many facts were in dispute. There was NOTHING wrong with what Congress did, and Hunter was right to stick to his guns.