Romney took the afternoon off to rest and study, and it showed. He was totally on message: decisive, forceful, passionate. He mixed it up a bit with John McCain, who got in a few zingers about Romney's alternating positions on issues like abortion and immigration. Rudy Giuliani was also strong on the issue that is most central to his campaign: fighting Islamic terror. He showed fight, which has been sorely missing from his campaign over the past few weeks. Thompson delivered a relaxed, confident performance, but he always sort of looks like he's doing us a favor by being there. Mike Huckabee looks finished. I hope he enjoyed the ride. Romney, however, had the most to lose during this debate, and he didn't blow it. He may have staunched the bleeding from his Iowa loss. We shall see if it's enough to beat back McCain.
On the Democratic side, Edwards took the afternoon off to take a run, and it showed. He was totally on message, like Romney: decisive, forceful, passionate. He made one really stupid mistake: when he was asked how he would respond as president if terrorists detonated a nuclear weapon in an American city, Edwards said he'd retaliate but do it in a way that is "calm." Calm?! In the face of a nuke going off in New York or Chicago or LA? Calm?! In the face of millions dead and millions more irradiated? Calm?! In the face of jihad? Dumb, and irresponsible.
But by and large, Edwards had a good night, while Barack Obama looked not quite ready for primetime. He's fabulous on the campaign trail, where he's in his element, surrounded by adoring throngs. But under the glare of the spotlight, with tough questions coming at him, well, he's not exactly Tony Blair. Of course, the same thing was said---IS said---about President Bush. (You may not be a fan, but Bush was still elected president. Twice.)
Hillary Clinton had perhaps the most thought-out answers (even if they were all wrong for America), and she had a head-snapping exchange with Obama over her lack of likability. She had a syrupy, faux coy reply ready when asked why folks just don't like her: "Well, that hurts my feelings...but I'll try to go on." Grating, but it worked somehow. Obama was having none of it: "You're likable enough, Hillary." Oh no he didn't! Yes he did! Some pundits suggested that his slam was "petty." What they don't get is that Obama is trying to consolidate the "anybody but Hillary" vote. They lapped that up like a kitten at a bowl of milk.
None of the candidates did any serious damage to themselves tonight, which was miraculous given their exhaustion. Look for Romney and Edwards to move up a bit in the NH tracking polls. Perhaps not enough to save their skins, but enough to give them hope. Wouldn't that be audacious?