The Republican Debate: First Take

As the Republicans debated who is more conservative tonight, two voices stood out: Mitt Romney's and Rudy Giuliani's.

At long last, Romney defended and touted and bragged about the singular political and policy accomplishment of his tenure as Massachusetts governor: the health care system reform that provides every resident there with insurance. Watching him at other debates, it was easy to get the sense that he wasn't sure how to integrate his Massachusetts experience into his campaign narrative. The plan itself was written with the help of Heritage Foundation experts but it did not, in the end, comport with every conservative principle.

But it stands out as an prime example -- perhaps the ultimate example -- of conservative governance. Romney worked hard at health care in Massachusetts; he worked with Democrats; he worked with Republicans; he wound up with a novel program that, while not perfect and not transferable to other states, stands out as a real accomplishment. Romney calls himself an executive and a manager; with health care, he executed and managed in real time. At their Michigan debate, Republicans seemed a bit reality-deaf and barely acknowledged the sense of economic dislocation that middle class Republicans feel; Tonight, Romney demonstrated that, given the right scenario, he can connect with those voters better than just about any candidate up there.

His best moment may have been when he said that an insurmountable problem like the health care crisis can, indeed, be solved. It wasn't just a candidate saying he was optimistic; he showed how optimism, will and plod can be potent problem-solving forces.

After a tentative start, Giuliani again proved that he is so adept in these formats and can handle really any question with finesse. And he showed, again, that he is the Republican who best frames the race against Hillary Clinton. He's a natural at it. Also: Giuliani should get some props from Ezra Klein: he accurately pointed out that Medicare is in much worse shape than Social Security and is a much more serious problem. At the end of the debate, he gave an answer on Iran that sounded reasonable and not Podhoretz-esque.

Fred Thompson started off better than he finished -- a meandering answer on Turkey did not come off very well. At one point, he seemed not to recognize that the Armenian Genocide proposal is already, well, dead. He did have a cute final answer on his laziness.

John McCain -- the only standing ovation belonged to him for his classic line about Hillary Clinton's Woodstock museum earmark: "I’m sure it was an historical and pharmaceutical event… I was tied up at the time." He tried hard -- at times too hard -- to rise above his opponents, talking just a little too slowly and softly at times. Substantively, he was crisp and detailed.

Ron Paul -- what to say about a man who draws more boos than Hillary Clinton from the crowd?

Mike Huckabee -- Last debate, he faded into the background while Thompson came into relief; this time, Huckabee stood his own, but didn't have any breakout moments.