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Republicans Debate: The Conclusion

John McCain, left, speaks with Mike Huckabee at the Republican debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The six Republican presidential candidates disagreed repeatedly but politely in a debate tonight in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a dynamic that affirmed Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as the frontrunner for his party's nomination heading into votes in Michigan and South Carolina over the next nine days.

VIDEO | South Carolina Hosts GOP Debate (AP Video)

McCain entered tonight's festivities with the biggest target on his back following his win in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary and a new South Carolina poll that showed he had leapt into the lead there.

But, two things worked in McCain's favor: the content of the questions asked by the the Fox News Channel moderators and the unwillingness of anyone other than former governor Mitt Romney (Mass.) to take a shot at McCain.

For 85 of the 90 minutes of the debate, the topics -- the troubled economy, spending, foreign policy, conservative credentials -- played to McCain's strengths as he recited his campaign's message: That he alone of the field has the experience in and out of elected office to lead the country in treacherous times.

Even the five minutes (or so) spent discussing illegal immigration -- a weak spot for McCain -- ended as well as possible for the Arizona senator. McCain was the first one to respond to the question about curtailing illegal immigration, a primacy that allowed him to preempt potential attacks from his rivals. "We will reward no one," McCain said of illegal immigrants living in this country. "They will have to get at the end of the line."

Romney tried to score points on the issue, arguing that he and McCain differ on what to do with the 12 million immigrants living illegally in the United States. "I believe others who have come here illegally should stand in line with all of the others who want to come to this country," he said.

It was the second time in the debate that Romney had tried to draw a clear line in the sand between himself and McCain. In the opening moments of the debate, he condemned McCain's pessimistic statement that there were jobs leaving Michigan that would never come back. McCain had a ready response: "One of the reasons why I won in New Hampshire is because I went there and told them the truth. . . Sometimes you have to tell people things they don't want to hear."

And, unfortunately for Romney, none of the other men on stage were willing to take up his cause against McCain.

Former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.) focused almost exclusively on attacking former governor Mike Huckabee's (Ark.) governing record, hoping to peel away evangelical voters who are expected to be crucial in deciding the winner in the Palmetto State primary. Thompson was more lively than he had been in previous debates and may well have done himself some good in the eyes of South Carolina voters.

Huckabee as well as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani spent most of the debate talking about their own records, touting their experience as chief executives as distinct and superior to those on stage with a legislative background.

"You have to actually make decisions and there are consequences to your decisions," said Giuliani at one point. "It's easy to be in Congress and pass a bill that maybe will change some mandates in some states," Huckabee said at another. "Those of use who are governors...actually had to make it work."

A few other thoughts from tonight's debate:

* Rep. Ron Paul continues to serve as a foil for the other candidates. At different times tonight, McCain, Giuliani and Romney all used Paul's call to end the war in Iraq and bring the troops home to tout their own very different visions for the future of the conflict. It's a tactic Giuliani has used repeatedly in past debates and one his opponents latched onto tonight.

* Huckabee showed again that he performs best when seemingly backed into a corner on his religious beliefs. Asked about a comment he made that seemed to imply that a woman should submit to her husband, Huckabee gave an eloquent explication of the particular Biblical verse to which he was referring, and a offered a broader endorsement of his belief that both a husband and wife need to give 100 percent to make a marriage work. It evoked huge applause and reminded us of Huckabee's sterling answer when asked whether he believed in evolution at a past debate.

* Giuliani didn't seem to be a major part of tonight's debate -- a victim of his strategy to wait until Florida's Jan. 29 primary to truly engage in the race. Giuliani has been on the sidelines of the race for the past several weeks and tonight's debate affirmed that he continues to struggle to find ways to inject himself into a conversation that is largely going on without him.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 10, 2008; 11:08 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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