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Republican Debate Wrapup: Comity Reigns

Content with where their campaigns stand heading into next Tuesday's Florida Republican primary, the five GOP candidates almost entirely avoided any real contrasts with each other in tonight's debate in Florida despite the best efforts of the moderators of the gathering.

Time and time again, moderators Brian Williams and Tim Russert -- both of NBC -- sought to draw the candidates out, asking questions that seemed to invite fireworks between the rivals. And yet, with a few small exceptions, the candidates would not take the bait.

An example: Toward the end of the 90-minute debate, former governor Mike Huckabee was asked whether he agreed with the statement made by Chuck Norris -- a Huckabee supporter -- that 71-year-old Sen. John McCain was too old to be president.

Rather than use the opportunity to take some bark off of McCain, Huckabee laughed off the issue and quickly turned to praise the former senator. "He has demonstrated in the campaign that he has the capacity to run," said Huckabee adding that McCain's age is "not an issue."

Even when the candidates were allowed to question one another, they chose to stay on the policy high road. Romney asked former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to elaborate on the nature of America's relationship with China; McCain asked Huckabee to expand on why he supported the "fair tax".

Instead of attacking one another, the Republican candidates spent most of their time revisiting their stump speeches and taking pot shots at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). McCain denounced Clinton for what he described as her "white flag of surrender" policy toward the future of American involvement in Iraq; Romney won applause from the crowd -- despite the urgings from the moderators not to clap -- for his derisive reference to the New York Senator as "General Hillary Clinton".

The result of the non-debate is likely an affirmation of the status quo in the state with McCain and Romney battling for the victory next Tuesday. Two polls released in the last 24 hours showed the two men in a statistical dead heat with Giuliani and Huckabee battling for third place.

That Giuliani was unwilling to take any direct shots at his opponents seems to signal that either his campaign knows something the pollsters don't or that he is content to make his policy points and let the chips fall where they may -- even if that means a third-place finish, which would badly hamstring his chances at the nomination.

Asked to explain his rapid fall in national polling, Giuliani made a reference to the come-from-behind efforts of his home state New York Giants but also seemed to concede that most of his rivals thought he was no longer a serious contender.

And, Giuliani may have shown his hand in the race when he used his chance to question another candidate to go after Romney over his equivocation on a national catastrophic fund, to help victims of hurricanes and other natural disasters, despite the fact that McCain's opposition to the legislation puts him out of step with most Floridians.

McCain repaid that kindness later in the debate, praising Giuliani as a "American hero" for his service during and after Sept. 11, 2001, despite a New York Times editorial just out describing the former mayor as "narrow" and "vindictive." (The Times editorial, by the way, endorsed Clinton and McCain in the presidential contest).

While McCain largely received a pass during the debate, Romney was not so lucky. In addition to the question from Giuliani, Romney was also asked to explain whether or not he truly supported the second amendment by Huckabee and was peppered with a series of questions from the moderators over how much of his own money he had spent on his campaign, the skepticism among voters about voting for a Mormon, and why Romney was not well liked by his opponents for the nomination.

Romney generally stood up well against the barrage, seeking to pivot back to a common Republican enemy to take the pressure off of himself. "I believe I will ultimately get the nomination," he said. "In a head to head with Hillary Clinton, the difference in our perspectives...are as different of night and day."

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 24, 2008; 11:05 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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