Video: Lightening strikes Giuliani?

updated 6/7/2007 12:21:13 PM ET 2007-06-07T16:21:13

Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani certainly looked like frontrunners this week at back-to-back debates in New Hampshire, and they sure behaved like them too. But considering how fragile their respective leads are in recent polls, were they well advised to remain so far above the fray?

For her part, Clinton, who said a few months ago that she would ''deck'' anyone who attacked her during the campaign, responded Sunday to open attacks from John Edwards (and more subtle jabs from Barack Obama) with a frontrunner’s finesse. ''The differences among us are minor,'' she said. ''The differences between us and the Republicans are major.''

With the glaring exception of a tussle he picked with John McCain over immigration reform, Giuliani’s restraint on stage Tuesday evening (at least toward his fellow Republicans) was even more notable. To wit:

"The problem the Democrats make is they're in denial," he said in his first response to a question about the 2003 Iraq invasion in which he could easily have gone after Mitt Romney.

On use of a nuclear weapon against Iran, he said, "Democrats seemed to be back in the 1990s. They don't seem to have gotten beyond the Cold War."

On why Republicans lost in 2006, Giuilani said, "it’s because Republicans became Democrats."

When he was attacked by Sam Brownback, who said the New York mayor couldn’t prevail in the GOP primary because “this is a party of principles, not a party of personalities,” Giuliani turned the other cheek. Democrats, he said, "are on defense against terrorism. You saw that two nights ago here. They couldn't even utter the words 'Islamic terrorism.' It's our biggest enemy. They couldn't utter it.  We need somebody who can stand up to that."

Both performances were apparently hits with their party’s bases, who are frequently at odds with the two candidates.

“Hillary Clinton won because she arrived at the debate as the front-runner… and left the debate with her position solidified," wrote Obama-lover Arianna Huffington on Monday on her blog, Huffington Post. "Her success was due in part to what she did during the debate, and in part to what Barack Obama failed to do."

Forty-five percent of likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire thought Clinton won the debate, compared with just 8 percent for Obama, according to a new Franklin Pierce College/WBZ poll released Wednesday.

Positive reaction to Giuliani’s performance Tuesday among conservative bloggers was "near unanimous," wrote the Hotline's Conn Carroll.

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"Let's face it. Debates are composed of moments. And, Rudy is momentous," wrote Mary Katherine Hamm on the conservative Townhall blog.

"Rudy Giuliani won that debate hands down," wrote New York Sun's Ryan Sager. "Whether it was Iraq, immigration, health care, or whatever, he just sounded so much more relaxed and in command of the situation than the other candidates that it was ridiculous."

But was it also a missed opportunity?

An average of recent polls shows Clinton and Giuliani have watched (admittedly wide) leads flatten over the past two months. Clinton is threatened, of course, by the steady rise of Obama, who outperformed her for the first time in a USA Today/Gallup national poll released Tuesday. Polls show Giuliani faces a two-front challenge from Romney and Fred Thompson, who has yet to fully engage his campaign. On Wednesday, Giuliani’s campaign announced he won’t compete in the crucial Ames straw poll in August

Why, then, did Clinton and Giuliani, both proven street fighters, remain above the fray in New Hampshire this week?

First, it's early and, despite the media glare, few voters are fully engaged. Why, they clearly asked themselves, be the one to pick the first fight?

Second, there's a big difference between how they perform on stage and how their camps maneuver off camera. While Clinton was preparing for the debate, her aides continued to pick apart the health-care proposal Obama unveiled last week. Shortly before the debate, Camp Giuliani was forced to apologize for distributing a Salt Lake City article that highlighted some of the more unusual prophecies of the Mormon Church, to which Romney belongs.

You want to see some real summer heat? Depending on polls (and 2ndQ fundraising), it could be here sooner than we think.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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