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Republican Debate: Winners and Losers

The last P.F.T -- pre-Fred Thompson -- debate is in the books.

Eight Republican candidates gathered on a stage in Durham, N.H., last night while one, the aformentioned Thompson, chose an appearance on "The Tonight Show" to finally make his candidacy official.

Below you'll find our take on the winners and losers from last night's festivities. These are -- obviously -- subjective, so if you disagree feel free to offer your own thoughts in the comments section.

WINNERS

John McCain: Freed from the burdens that come with being a top-tier candidate, the Arizona Senator let 'er rip last night to great effect. New Hampshire still loves McCain and it showed last night as the audience laughed at his jokes and clapped at his applause lines. That appeal makes McCain an x-factor in New Hampshire as he can help to boost or bust a candidate. Last night he focused most of his fire on former Gov. Mitt Romney (R), scolding Romney for saying that the surge in Iraq was "apparently" working; "It is is working," McCain bristled. It's a sign of McCain's residual power as well as how far he has fallen that both former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.) went out of their way to praise McCain's service and agree with him on several points. A McCain endorsement in New Hampshire for Giuliani -- assuming McCain doesn't stay in the race that long -- would be a HUGE news story. And judging from last night, Hizzoner is well aware of the possibility.

Rudy Giuliani: Giuliani has improved in each of the debates, which is not that tough a task given how listless he was at these forums earlier this year. Last night Giuliani forcefully made the case that he alone on the stage was equipped to handle the executive responsibilities of the White House on day one. In response to criticism from McCain that his response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on New York did not mean Giuliani had the requisite experience to be president, the former Mayor sought to broaden the argument by noting the turnaround of his city during his eight years in office. Giuliani had his difficult moments -- explaining his position on illegal immigration being the most notable, and one that Romney and others have seized upon -- but generallyskillfully parried the attacks on him. We give him points for being ready for what sure seemed like a planted question from a New Hampshire college student about whether the problems in Giuliani's personal life made him a flawed messenger on family values. "I certainly haven't lived a perfect life," Giuliani said. "I am not running as the perfect candidate for president of the United States. I am running as a leader."

Fred Thompson: We wrote yesterday that Thompson was taking a gamble by skipping last night's debate since it had the potential to play into a broader narrative that he was looking to be coronated as the nominee. And, as expected, his rivals all took shots at him; our favorite was from Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney: "I think he has done a pretty good job of playing my part on Law & Order. I prefer the real thing." But, if you look at the news coverage -- including in the Post -- the Thompson announcement got top billing. He was also featured as the lead story on the Drudge Report for the entirety of the debate. Kudos too go out to new Thompson communications director Todd Harris who moved a memo moments after the debate ended that read: "Thompson Already Dominating Campaign Narrative." Well played.

LOSERS

Mitt Romney: The former governor may be hurt by the high expectations he set by his strong performances in early debates. But, regardless of the reason, Romney disappointed last night. He was back on his heels for much of the 90 minutes and had to grin and bear it as McCain scolded him on Iraq and a New Hampshire resident chastised him for comparing his sons' work on behalf of his campaign to the sacrifice being made by soldiers in Iraq. We've wondered for a while whether Romney can empathize with an audience, and last night didn't do much to answer that question. Rather than use the man's comments (and his son's service in Iraq) as a moment to offer a heartfelt apology, Romney reverted to rattling off his stump speech -- "There is no comparison of course. We owe them our respect and the sacrifice they make is something we will never forget." Romney insiders argue that they accomplished their goal in the debate by drawing a bright contrast between the former governor and Giuliani on sanctuary cities and the broader issue of illegal immigration. Romney may wind up winning the war on that issue but last night he lost a battle.

Sam Brownback: After the Ames straw poll robbed Brownback of the "most electable true conservative" label, he has struggled to offer a justification for his candidacy. Last night he barely made a mark; he didn't get a question for the first 25 minutes of the debate and when one did come to him it was on scandal surrounding Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho.). The order and content of the questions are of course out of Brownback's control. But as a second tier candidate he has to find a way to make his voice heard on the key issues of the debate if he wants to regain the momentum he lost at Ames. He didn't do that last night.

Hypothetical Questions: Why do these make it on the air? By now, all of the candidates have their standard "it's dangerous to engage in hypotheticals" line and it's impossible for the moderator to make them answer. The Iran scenario last night fell flat as each of the major candidates found new and innovative ways not to answer the question.

Late-Starting Debates: The Fix is no night owl. Last night's debate started at 9 p.m. and ended beyond 10:30 pm. That's a full 30 minutes past The Fix's bed time. Let's hear it for 7 p.m. starting times! Yeah!

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 6, 2007; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: Introducing FixCam: Is It All About Fred?

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