And The Winners Are....

My head tells me not to anoint winners, because, really, I'm not a New Hampshire voter and what the heck do I know about how they watched the debate?

My gut instinct: Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani won. John McCain did very well, too.

Debates are about moments, and this debate belonged to an impassioned exchange between Ron Paul and Huckabee about the Iraq War. Fox News smartly let the two men have their say. Refreshing: an actual substantive debate about core principles. What do we owe to the Iraqi people? Ron Paul says nothing -- "we" as in Americans didn't make the mistake, the neocon cabal did. Mike Huckabee believes that the war was a mistake. But -- America's honor is at stake. Honor -- a word that Huckabee associated with John McCain. A word that resonates with the Republican electorate. "We have to be one nation. That means, if we make a mistake, we make it as a single country. Even if we lose elections, we should not lose our honor." Huckabee said the country owes to the Iraqi people our best effort to prevent genocide and stabilize the country. "We have to continue the surge. What we did in Iraq is we essentially broke it. It's our responsibility to try and fix it." Huckabee earned the biggest applause of the night. It may have been -- dare we say -- his break-out moment in New Hampshire, where support for the war isn't all that strong. (If this exchange had occurred in South Carolina, it definitely would have been a vote-earning exchange.) Huckabee was also asked tough questions about his immigration stance; he should wear them as a badge of honor. It means that his rise is being taken seriously by the press and by the Republican electorate.

The crowd seemed to like Giuliani's every answer on subjects resting on all three legs of the Republican stool. As he's done in all the other debates, Giuliani sought to contrast his own governing experience with the lack of said experience on the resumes of the Democratic rivals.

Generally, any effort to knock Giuliani's record in New York City fails. Maybe not factually, but Guiliani just sounds like a guy who knows what he's talking about. That aura really helps -- it's also why so many evangelicals hear him and say, "yeah, he's a conservative" even when presented with his moral liberalism. Giuliani's response to the question about his New York City immigration policies was concise and strong. Props to Giuliani's research, team, though, for producing the actual executive order that was the subject of a back-and-forth with Romney.

Another good moment: asked to explain his messy personal life, Giuliani answered with a great sensitivity: "I am not running as the prefect candidate for president as the United States. I am running as a human being..." and "Any issues in my private life do not effect my public performance."

The press will love his answer on the Grover Norquist tax pledge: "As president, I take only one oath," he said.

John McCain mustered strong answers on the economy, his national security experience and even on immigration, and managed to create a conflict between himself and Mitt Romney on whether the surge was working; McCain was 100% sure it was working, and Romney was... pretty darn sure it was working. But -- realistically -- how could Mitt Romney possibly know for sure whether the surge was working? It might be an article of faith with McCain, but Romney was where most Americans seem to be -- cautiously optimistic. Clearly, McCain finds Romney irritating.

When the father of a U.S. soldier chastised Mitt Romney for comparing the Romney boys' political service to the service of soldiers for their country, the dramatic tension would have been resolved by an apology -- even though Romney has already apologized. It was the hardest moment to watch. This is where Romney's crispness cuts too harshly. He seemed not to connect with the father's evident pain and hurt.

Otherwise, Romney, being very familiar with New Hampshire's inner maw, had well-thought out answers for every other question, even as three of the first four turned, in some measure, on whether he flip-flopped. A strong answer on abortion; there "two lives" to consider, he said -- the baby and the woman. Fox's Wendell Goler implied that Romney would withdraw troops quicker than Hillary Clinton, a low blow that might hit Romney later on. Romney seems to want to balance support for the surge with an acknowledgment of the political realities in America. That Romney raised $260M in fees came up for the first time in a debate, but it's a subject many New Hampshire Republicans probably know about and probably is irrelevant when McCain and Giuliani refuse to sign Grover Norquist's tax pledge. TBD: whether Romney's efforts to draw a distinction between himself and Giuliani succeeded or was lost in the rest of the debate.

In case the audience reaction was confusing tonight, this is New Hampshire. Moral libertarianism and social conservatism. It was hard to tell whether gay marriage got more applause than boos. Surprisingly for a debate in New Hampshire, there was little debate about the economy and fiscal policies.

Also present, without much distinction or lack thereof: Duncan Hunter, strong as always but lost among giants, and Sam Brownback, knowledgable and on his game, but, as always, lost among the giants.