The Republicans learned from the S.C Democratic debate to not be petty and shrill. Tim Russert and Brian Williams threw up several opportunities for the candidates to go after each other, and they rarely took the debate. The real signal was when Russert asked Mike Huckabee if he trusted Mitt Romney on his tax stance when he raised fees in Massachusetts. Huck rarely skips a chance to drill into Mitt, but he said it's up to the American people to decide if they trust him and then he moved on to talk about his own record.
Mitt Romney looked and sounded the most presidential, and he benefitted from the first half-hour of the debate being on the economy. Ron Paul's domestic outlook and proposals sounded like true conservatism. John McCain did some political name-dropping for who supports him.
When it comes to the war, Ron Paul was the only one who says the Iraq War was a bad idea and we never should have gone in. Mike Huckabee had the line about weapons of mass destruction: "Just because you didn't find every Easter egg doesn't mean they weren't planted." Mitt Romney made the distinction that the war went great when we went in, but it was badly managed afterwards.
When it came to the segment where the candidates ask each other questions, it was shockingly congenial. First question was Romney to Guiliani about China, but in asking his question, it was complex and detailed enough that he was really answering the question himself before adding a (?) to it and Guiliani was able to expand on it. Second question was a staggering softball from McCain to huckabee over the Fair Tax. Third question was Paul to McCain, and he asked about the financial markets, and McCain looked confused by the question. Fourth question was Huckabee to Romney where Huck got to demonstrate his support of assault weapons while trying to nail Romney on the Second Amendment, which Romney handled nicely. Next question was Giuliani to Romney about catastrophic insurance, an issue in hurricane-friendly Florida. No fireworks are going to happen here, which is good for the front-runners and for tomorrow's headlines.
Romney had the line of the night when he talked about how Republicans don't want to send Bill Clinton back to the White House with nothing to do.
Paul proposed a way to get rid of Social Security while still taking care of the elderly.
Huck had a cheap jab at Romney that fell flat about Mitt's sons' inheritance.
The last few questions were easy ones for each candidates.
The Florida polls show the order is Romney, McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee, Paul. I don't think the debate did anything to change that order.