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McCain rides high -- at least for a night

Some thoughts on the state of the Republican presidential race after the Fox debate in New Hampshire. By Howard Fineman

Some observations about the state of the Republican presidential race after the Fox debate from the University of New Hampshire:

  • They came to bury John McCain by praising him, but in doing so they resurrected him -- at least for a night. There was an air of nostalgia in praise other Republican candidates heaped on him. The shrewd Mike Huckabee led the way, saying McCain “understands the word honor.”  Question: has the bidding begun for what everyone assumes will be a McCain post-withdrawal endorsement?

  • Rudy Giuliani was better prepared than ever -- at least in the view of the Mitt Romney campaign aides with whom I watched the debate here. He had plausible defenses of his liberal New York immigration policy, his lack of foreign policy experience, and his refusal to sign a “no new taxes pledge.” “He’s done a good job working on his answers,” said one of Romney’s top people here.

  • Huckabee is a shrewd dude, and once again did himself good by focusing his folksy answers on big problems in a plausible way. He was especially smart to get into a shouting match with Rep. Ron Paul, the GOP’s isolationist libertarian. The Romneyans were jealous. They wanted to mix it up with Paul, but didn’t get the chance.

  • If Fred Thompson was watching, and I assume he was (he lands here in Des Moines Thursday to launch his campaign), he saw nothing to prompt second thoughts about jumping in.  No candidate was overwhelmingly powerful or potent.

  • Former Gov. Romney for the most part seemed to disappear into the woodwork, except for a strong final answer on how he would approach decision-making on whether to launch a strike against Iran. He got tough questions on tax policy, Iraq and other issues. “They’re treating him like the frontrunner he is in the early states,” said one of the Romneyans. Perhaps, but he seemed cautious and pallid, as though trying not so much to win support as not to lose it.

  • Thanks to Paul, the debate over Iraq policy -- and larger questions of presidential power and foreign policy -- is far more robust than on the Democratic side.

  • Based on what I am hearing here from voters and operatives here in Iowa, the FOX panel was right to home in on immigration. It is the hottest issue here.

  • Sen. Sam Brownback, Rep. Tom Tancredo and Rep. Duncan Hunter are gaining no traction whatsoever, based on what I am hearing here and from soundings elsewhere. They did nothing to distinguish themselves in the New Hampshire debate.

  • No one defended Sen. Larry Craig.

  • Have to go: time to watch Thompson on Leno.