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Republicans Debate: The Halfway Point



Mitt Romney, left, John McCain, center, and Mike Huckabee take the stage at the Republican debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Although the six Republican presidential candidates are all standing on stage together tonight, the debate has quickly devolved into a series of smaller debates as the participants position themselves for the coming primaries in Michigan and South Carolina.

It started with a debate between former governor Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) over the state of the economy -- a key issue in Michigan

Then came a tete-a-tete between former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.) and former governor Mike Huckabee (Ark.) over conservative credentials as each man seeks to make the case to evangelical voters that they are the true conservative in the field.

In most debates up until now, Thompson, has been a polite presence. But this time he decided to open up the book on opposition research on Huckabee when asked about preserving the Reagan coalition. While acknowledging that Huckabee would be a "Christian leader" if elected, Thompson quickly turned to the governor's allegedly "liberal" positions on taxes and foreign policy.

Huckabee responded with a trademark one liner -- "If I'm catching flack, I must be over the target" -- and then sought to defend his record as governor by insisting he did the best under difficult circumstances. "What I did was I governed," said Huckabee.

Thompson knows that his only path to viability in South Carolina is to raise questions about Huckabee's conservatism in the minds of evangelical voters -- a group who are being heavily targeted by both men. The beneficiary of the back and forth could well be McCain, who is leading in a new South Carolina poll, and who is almost certainly thrilled to let his main opponents in the state fight amongst themselves.

Mention of the recent confrontation between Iranian patrol boats and U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf triggered a lot of tough talk and saber rattling from the group, with Huckabee warning the Iranians that if they had been any more provocative, "The next thing you see are the gates of Hell." Only Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), the lone anti-war candidate, said "I would urge a lot more caution than I'm hearing tonight." To which Romney snapped: "I think Congressman Paul should not be reading so many [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad press releases

This debate seems to be signaling that the next few weeks will be dominated by fights between a handful of candidates rather than the entire field; a series of state by state battles heading into Feb. 5.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 10, 2008; 10:06 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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