The leading Republican presidential candidates fought about a lot, but in the end, for many (not all) of the issues on which they disagreed, there’s really no way to figure out how a President Huckabee would differ from a President Romney on immigration policy.

Also: where was health care? It’s a huge issue in Florida, but it came up not once... So don’t be upset that I’m going to skip the substance and get to the style:

McCain’s mix of resigned sighs, sober mien and sense of humor went over well with a crowd that seemed predisposed to be wary of him. He drew out Ron Paul on the war (before Giuliani had the chance to), and it proved a very clear exchange of principles and a very good YouTube moment for McCain. There was a long period of time during the middle of the debate – probably 25 minutes – where he did not get to answer one question. But then he and Mitt Romney debated – actually debated – the question of waterboarding. McCain got the better of the exchange, but he always gets the better of exchanges on the subject. It’s not clear whether the Republican base agrees that waterboarding, even if torturous, should not be applied to enemy combatants. But the press will lap it up – and so might New Hampshire independents. McCain has as good a night as a candidate can have if you consider what the average Republican and Republican-leaning independent in the Granite State are looking for.

Giuliani had a an “eh” to “poor” night. He seemed deflated. A little defensive. Perfunctory answers on the literal truth of the bible and on abortion. Nothing out of the ordinary, but no memorable moments outside of his exchanges with Romney, where he was flustered and a little aggressive.

Thompson: He gets more comfortable with every debate. Tonight, he repeatedly matched parts of his resume to the issues at hand, a way of answering the lingering question that he’s checked out. It was a very good performance in a state he needs to pump his numbers. His answer on guns was very clear and strong.

Huckabee held his own and was not really subjected to close scrutiny. A strong answer for his Iowa audience on the bible.

Romney had a strong night, seemed raring to go, seemed to be willing to take on everybody,
anybody, all comers, seemed to want to pick every fight possible. It’s as if Alex Gage whispered to Romney as he went on stage: “Governor, remember: you want the headlines to be “Romney Fights For Conservative Principles.”

The early fireworks between Giuliani and Romney had a thin quality to it, as if they were nitpitcking and sniping, rather than debating a point or principle. Does the party want to showcase a confrontation over the finer points of immigration policy? Is there really a difference between Romney, Giuliani and Thompson on immigration. No. What is the effect of a debate that produces false distinctions? As Tom Tancredo noted: “All I’ve heard is people trying to out Tancredo Tancredo.”

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