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The debate took a while to gain any traction, but there were some clarifying moments for me. The questions were often excellent - especially the tough ones at the beginning about the war. The Republicans, we learned, have absolutely no idea what to do about Iraq. The only two people with coherent positions were McCain and Paul. McCain supports a war without end, a permanent occupation of Iraq, regardless of whether a national government there can exist in the foreseeable future. He's for empire, as are Cheney and Bush. I can see no reason for him to withdraw any troops in the next five years. The notion that a national Iraqi government, composed of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, will be able to defend itself and take the side of the West in the war in Jihadist terror is simply ludicrous in the imaginable future. That much we surely know by now. So empire is the new Republican consensus: an empire built entirely for security reasons, and an empire which somehow manages to make us less secure. Paul, in contrast, had the balls to state the classic Republican position, and to defend it in the wake of 9/11. Man, that guy has some brass cojones. He even invoked Ronald Reagan in urging withdrawal from the irrationality of Arab politics. Other than McCain and Paul, the others were risible in their soundbites and faux toughness.

It's also clear that compassionate conservatism is dead. Every single candidate favors reduced taxes and big spending cuts. None, however, is prepared to say that Medicare and Social Security must be on the chopping block. The grand experiment in big-government Republicanism is therefore rhetorically over. Sorry, Mr Gerson - but only one Republican is dumb enough to embrace the bromides of government spending as the cure for all our woes. And he's got a limit of two terms. That's a victory of sorts for those of us urging conservatives to abandon their big spending ways. I say "of sorts" because in practice, there's no sign that any of them, except Paul and possibly McCain, mean a scintilla of what they are saying.

The final clarifier for me was, yes, torture...

Some issues really are paramount moral ones. Two candidates opposed it clearly and honorably: McCain and Paul. All the others gleefully supported it - including Brownback. He's a born-again Christian for torture. Giuliani revealed himself as someone we already know. He would have no qualms in exercising executive power brutally, no scruples or restraints. Romney would double the size and scope of Gitmo, to ensure that none of the detainees have lawyers, regardless of their innocence or guilt. That is in itself a disqualification for the presidency of the United States. A man who has open contempt for the most basic rules of Western justice has no business being president.

Huckabee did well, with several great applause lines. Giuliani, interestingly, openly lied about Ron Paul's position on 9/11. Paul specifically did not make a statement, as Giuliani immediately claimed, that the U.S. invited 9/11. I rewound to double-check. It was the Fox questioner who ratcheted up the stakes on that question, not Paul. Paul demurred on a specific answer and switched the question to the general issue of blowback. As to who's right, the answer is both. Bin Laden - still at large and operating within the territory of Pakistan, an alleged ally which Cheney recently visited - both justified the 9/11 attack on those grounds but has a theology that doesn't require such a casus belli. But now he doesn't even need the theology. We have, alas, made more terrorists by our bungling in Iraq than Bin Laden could have dreamed of just six years ago.

For me, the moral question of torture in many ways settles this race. Just hearing Brit Hume curl his lips around the phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" was a brief moment of insight. I was glad that McCain called these hideous methods by their proper name, and that Paul described Hume's weasel words as "newspeak." I was surprised to see Romney so aggressively embrace torture and Gitmo. On reflection, however, I was being naive again. Romney aims to please. He knew where he was - South Carolina. You can largely determine his beliefs in advance by judging the audience he is attempting to win over. For me, then, the debate winnowed the field of candidates down to two: McCain and Paul. That was quick.

(Photo: Stan Honda.)