More Fizzle Than Sizzle In GOP Debate

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.

Keep reading for the live blog of today's debate:

3:25pm: The moderator has been showing clips of candidate statements taken over the past year and the one they chose for Huckabee was a juicy one in which he said that a person who claims their faith will not influence their decisions doesn't have much of a faith. It was a perfect opportunity to ask whether he was speaking directly about Romney. Instead, he was asked about areas of policy where his faith might influence his decision. Romney is asked to rank the more important – social conservatism or social conservatism – and refuses to bite. He says what's important is being a conservative.

New Years resolutions for other candidates – McCain wants a higher dialogue; Huckabee says he'll be more careful about what he says; Romney calls for a respectful campaign; Thompson is all about self-improvement and Tancredo asks how Huckabee will convince voters that he's actually changed on the issue of illegal immigration. Rudy wants optimism.

And that's the end, full wrap-up coming shortly.

3:10pm: Giuliani faces the first tough question about transparency and he indirectly referenced the disclosure that security funds in New York City were spent while he was carrying on an affair with his now-wife. Giuliani makes a statement that could well come back in a TV ad, asserting that he can't think of another public figure who has been more transparent than he has.

3:05pm: What do the candidates want to do in their first year in office? This is a deceivingly tough question taken seriously. But it does give the candidates a chance to hit on their main issues.

Thompson is scoring some points in this debate with his "truth-telling" talk. Romney says he'll do more than talk, including strengthening security, growing the economy, lowering spending, keeping taxes low, reining in entitlements, making America energy dependent and a couple other small items. Huckabee wants to bring the country together and McCain wants to restore confidence in the government.

Romney uses his 30-second candidate statement to remind Iowans how much they've seen of him over the past year. Giuliani uses his to mention 9/11.

2:55pm: Next up – education. McCain emphasizes choice, including support for charter schools and home-schooling (an influential group in Iowa). Giuliani is turning into a me-too voice in this debate, echoing McCain on school choice. Of course, the issues hit on thus far yielded many difference in general principles. These are all Republican candidates, after all. Romney supports "No Child Left Behind" and delivers the most comprehensive answer on the subject.

Keyes barges in, calling the moderator unfair. He might want to talk with Dennis Kucinich, who is not invited to tomorrow's Democratic debate about that.

Tancredo takes a shot at Huckabee, telling him if he wants to pick curriculum, he should run for governor. First time Huckabee's been the target of anyone and he smacked it out of the park by pointing out that the job of a president is to lead. Romney disputes Huckabee's contention that he was the best education governor. Warming up?

2:40pm: Talk about free trade and support for NAFTA isn't the most popular position, even among Iowa Republicans. But most of the major candidates asked about it stuck to their guns on their general support of it. Candidates are being given 30-second of free time in a random sort of order.

McCain flashes his green credentials on climate change and Giuliani agrees. Thompson gets feisty with the moderator when she won't allow him to explain his position. It's a sign of the times when all of the Republican candidates agree that climate change is real and that humans are contributing at least something to it. Huckabee sounds most skeptical of it.

Alan Keyes decides to use the question as a chance to deliver a stump speech and Thompson, who is far more animated today, rebukes him for it. Thompson brought his "A" game today.

2:30pm: A little tension on taxes, with Romney saying he doesn't worry much about what rich people are paying in taxes and Thompson responding that he spends time trying to be in Romney's shoes. Thompson uses the quasi-light exchange to tell Romney he's "getting to be a good actor."

Ron Paul talks about opening Cuba. He's not going to win the Florida primary with that answer. Romney has been talking a lot about his private-sector experience. For someone who's been looking an awful lot like a politician throughout this campaign, it's probably a good theme to go back to.

2:15pm: Starting off with a question about whether the national debt is a threat to national security is much different than previous debates which began on the hot points of the race. Thompson's answer gave him a chance to talk about his Social Security plan and support for increased defense spending. Romney jumped at the question to reassert his optimism, asserting that it's a time to be hopeful.

Sacrifices to lower the debt: Giuliani says the Federal Government, not people should sacrifice. Paul agrees in principle but wants cuts in our military presence overseas. Huckabee talks about health care, asserting that a focus on health prevention would save money. Romney says there are a slew of federal programs which are repetitive and not working and says the government doesn't need to run a deficit in order to pay for what is necessary. Thompson has a laser-like focus on entitlements.

The final Republican presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses is just minutes away and the tension is building after Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney squared off this morning on the former Massachusetts governor's religion. There is a lot at stake and, because the debate is being widely televised this afternoon, the audience should be fairly large. At the very least, what happens in Des Moines this afternoon will dominate the campaign news today.

Moderator Carolyn Washburn said at the outset she'd be asking mostly about things that haven't been discussed as much and so far, she's stuck to that.

Preview: What's at stake for the top candidates?

  • Huckabee enters his first debate as the front-runner, which generally would mean he's the one with a target on his back. But because it appears to be a two-person race in Iowa, the main action to watch will be between Huckabee and Romney. Squabbles on immigration are almost guaranteed but how big of a topic will Mormonism be? Probably a bigger one than we could have imagined before today. There has been plenty of scrutiny of Huckabee on other issues – look for the issue of pardons to come up. Huckabee is now a front-runner and the bar has risen for him. Can he remain the likeable candidate in this environment?
  • Romney has a tough task in front of him. While he has grown increasingly critical of Huckabee, he risks looking reactive and negative if he attacks too fiercely. This could be one last chance – after the millions of dollars of ads and the thousands of hours traveling the state – for Romney to make up some serious ground in a state he once appeared to have all but locked up. Romney could try and appeal to social conservatives by arguing that he is more electable than Huckabee next November.
  • Rudy Giuliani is coming in with not much hope of winning the caucuses but a great interest in seeing Romney continue to lose ground to Huckabee. A solid third place for Giuliani would be quite a coup, especially if Romney comes out of the caucuses weakened. Giuliani's eyes are more on New Hampshire and, especially Florida, for the moment and a fluid race benefits him greatly. He may want to stay above the fray today, reinforce his national security message and watch the others fight it out.
  • John McCain isn't looking like a serious player in Iowa but his fortunes have improved overall and, particularly in New Hampshire. He could benefit here from playing the elder statesman role if the sniping gets intense. Like Giuliani, McCain has an interest in seeing Huckabee and Romney beat up on one another, hoping that Iowa activists and primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina decide to take another look at the field overall.
  • Fred Thompson's campaign yesterday said they have decided to skip New Hampshire altogether and will focus solely on Iowa and South Carolina. That puts some pressure on Thompson to make some kind of showing in the caucus state. Huckabee has risen in part because conservatives in Iowa haven't bought what Thompson has been selling. Unlike Giuliani and McCain, Thompson could benefit from any slippage in Huckabee's support.
  • Ron Paul could have more impact on this race than most give him credit for before it's all over. As a vehicle for frustrated and libertarian-minded voters, Paul is going to win voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Whether those votes actually come at the expense of another candidate is a question. For today, look for Paul to be Paul.
  • This may be the last debate for the rest of the field and you might see them trying to make the most of it. Tom Tancredo has leveraged the immigration issue as much as possible and that is a top concern for Iowa Republicans. Duncan Hunter has proved up to the task through most of these debate but isn't offering much that the other candidates aren't. The wild card today could be Alan Keyes, the perennial gadfly candidate with a penchant for saying just about anything. Hold on tight.