The moderator of today's Republican debate, Des Moines Register Editor Carolyn Washburn, promised that the candidates would be asked about issues that have gotten short shrift in the campaign and she was true to her word throughout the hour and a half session. Unfortunately for any voters tuning in looking to find distinctions between the candidates, it didn't do much to help their search.
Mostly bland questions yielded mostly boiler-plate answers. Had it not been for the presence of perennial gadfly Alan Keyes, who repeatedly popped up with bizarre statements which had no relation to the issues at hand – or any issues really – it would have been a difficult conversation to sit through. On subjects ranging from the national debt to education and free trade, there was more agreement than disagreement in this final debate before the January 3rd Iowa caucuses.
This GOP contest is one of the most wide-open in decades, with four or five candidates having a realistic chance to challenge for the nomination. For most of the candidates, this was one more day which they could hardly afford to waste.
Mike Huckabee entered the debate as the front-runner in Iowa so for him, no news is almost certainly good news. Once again, Huckabee proved to be the best communicator of the group, speaking both gently and forcefully from the heart. When Mitt Romney ticked off a litany of educational improvements he oversaw in the Massachusetts, Huckabee talked about the need to engage students, keep them interested and the importance of art and music.
Romney flashed his CEO credentials and firm grasp of details and private sector concepts he promises to bring to the presidency. If Huckabee is a candidate who is guided by his instincts and convictions, Romney is the one who does things by the numbers, making sure to dot every "i" and cross every "t." Romney managed to regain some of his optimistic demeanor after a period of exchanges with Huckabee and stayed away from direct attacks. That may have come as a surprise but Romney wasn't exactly given many natural opportunities to raise distinctions, especially on immigration.
If there was one candidate who surprised, it was Thompson. His rather grumpy demeanor remained for the most part – especially when he promised to level with the American people about the condition the country is in – but he was feistier than he has been at any time in his short campaign, throwing around ad-libs like he was back on the set of "Law and Order." Giuliani had the most awkward moment, dealing with a question about transparency with a near-apology for an extra-marital affair. But the former New York City Mayor mostly blended into the crowd with the rest of the field.
Blame it on the format, on cautiousness of the candidates or on the confusion that Alan Keyes brought to the table but today's debate was more fizzle than sizzle, and will almost certainly be quickly forgotten once the candidates get back on the trail and on the airwaves.