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Romney Battles, Huckabee Shines In GOP Debate

The questions in last night's Republican presidential debate may have come from ordinary Americans but most of the answers the candidates gave were aimed directly at their primary opponents. In the most contentious GOP debate thus far, Mitt Romney squared off in direct and contentious exchanges with the two candidates challenging his front-runner status in the first two states of the primary season.

In the opening minutes, Romney and Rudy Giuliani sparred over illegal immigration, with the former New York City mayor defending his city's policies and refuting the characterization that he ran a sanctuary city. In turn, Giuliani accused Romney of having a weaker record on illegal immigration as governor of Massachusetts and several times referred to an incident where illegal immigrants were hired to work on Romney's property.

Romney appeared to get the upper hand in the exchange, challenging Giuliani on his charge and the sometimes vocal audience sounded a note of apparent disapproval at the mayor's line of attack. Tensions have risen between the two candidates over the past week, especially on crime, an issue that caused sparks between the two tonight as well. Romney has led most polls in New Hampshire in recent months but Giuliani has begun focusing on the state and sharpening his criticism of Romney.

At the same time, Romney has seen his lead in Iowa shrink as Mike Huckabee has begun to surge in recent weeks. The two also tangled early on, again on the subject of immigration. When Huckabee was asked about supporting measures to give scholarship opportunities to children of illegal immigrants as governor of Arkansas, Romney leapt. Saying Huckabee reminded him of liberals in Massachusetts, Romney asserted that he was supporting opportunities for illegal immigrants over others and said, "it's not your money."

But Huckabee, who has distinguished himself in the debates all year, turned in the strongest performance of the evening at a time when he's beginning to become a force in the race. Time and time again, Huckabee stood out, giving thoughtful and eloquent answers to questions about immigration, taxes, the death penalty and the bible, which for an ordained Baptist minister is a familiar subject. He also once again delivered the best punch lines. When asked what Jesus would do in regards to the death penalty, Huckabee said, "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office." Romney was equally polished but seemed to have a checklist of key answers designed to hit key Republican constituencies.

Giuliani was uneven at times. His campaign spent the hours before the debate fielding questions about a report charging that as mayor, he had spent tens of thousands of dollars in security costs for personal reasons. Asked about that story by the debate's moderator, Giuliani said, "First of all it's not true. I had 24 hour security for the 8 years I was mayor. They followed me everyplace I went. It was because there were threats, threats I don't generally talk about. … They took care of me and they put in their records and they handled them the way they handled them. I had nothing to do with the way they handled their records. And they were handled, as far as I know, perfectly appropriately."

Fred Thompson tried to insert himself into the fight several times, taking on Romney on immigration and making a jab at Giuliani over his close past relationship with Bernard Kerik, who is now under federal indictment. Thompson was the one candidate on stage that dared to touch that third rail of American politics – Social Security – and seemed much more relaxed than he has in past debates.

But Thompson's campaign made a potentially harmful decision. In the spirit of the YouTube debate, each campaign was asked to submit a video of their own. Thompson's was the type you'd usually see run in the last days of a bitter race, not at a debate in front of a Republican audience. The ad featured past footage of Romney proclaiming himself to be pro-choice on abortion and Huckabee appearing to be asking for tax increases. When confronted about his choice of video, Thompson appeared to be taken aback; pointing out that is was simply using their words and saying, "I just wanted to give my buddies a little extra air time."

John McCain received hearty applause for his insistence that the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq. He made a point of directly confronting Ron Paul, the only anti-war GOP candidate, more than once, with good results. In one tense exchange, McCain strongly opposed the practice of waterboarding as part of U.S. interrogation and pointedly wondered how Romney could ever support it. But for most of the debate, McCain seemed as much part of the background, overshadowed by Huckabee, Romney and Giuliani.

Paul, the libertarian-bent GOP candidate who has gained a loyal following, was once again the fly in the ointment, speaking out against the war and federal involvement on issues like abortion. Paul endorsed the idea that there is a movement by some to create what amounts to a North American union with Canada and Mexico and declared that "our national sovereignty is under threat." Most intriguingly, Paul would not rule out a question about whether he may run as an independent in the general election, saying only that he had no intention of doing so before declaring himself proud to be a part of the movement he's tapped into. If he were to run as an independent, that could harm the GOP's chances next November.

Generally it's not easy to declare true winners and losers in these debates, but there's no doubt that Huckabee made the most headway. As his campaign – smaller, lesser funded and out-organized – struggles to capitalize on the sudden surge he's seen in the polls, this nationally televised debate allowed him to reintroduce himself to GOP primary voters. And he did not disappoint. Editor's Note: This post was updated from last night

Clinton And Obama Spar On Health Care: From CBS News' Fernando Suarez, on the trail with Hillary Clinton:

In an effort to continue to turn up the heat against her opponents, Clinton made it clear Wednesday that her chief rival in the Democratic presidential contest, Barack Obama, "flunks the test" when it comes to universal health care.

Clinton spoke at the Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, Iowa after arriving two hours late due to a blown out tire on her private airplane. The event was scheduled to be a discussion on health care, but it quickly became an open forum for Clinton to take on Obama.

"It is important for Democrats who will caucus on January 3rd to understand this difference: Senator Obama's plan does not and cannot cover all Americans. He's called his plan universal, then virtually universal. But it is not either and when it comes to truth in labeling he simply flunks the test," said Clinton.

The debate over universal health care has intensified in recent weeks, primarily the issue of mandates which requires that all Americans buy into the health care system. In Clinton's plan, every person would be required to purchase health care, while mandatory health care is not part of Obama's plan. Clinton points out that her opponent's plan leaves 15 million people uninsured, which amounts to not having a universal health care program. But the Senator from Illinois has taken issue with mandates because he argues that people who don't have health insurance don't have it because they don't want to, but because they can't afford it. He has also questioned how Clinton plans to enforce her mandate of universal health care, would she charge a fee to those who don't have health insurance? Clinton has yet to outline exactly how to enforce the mandate.

But Clinton fought back against Obama's attacks saying anything short of universal health care amounts to "betraying the Democratic Party's principles."

In a statement to the press, the Obama campaign said: "Another day, another desperate attack. Demonizing anyone who doesn't share her exact plans on health care is exactly why Hillary Clinton flunked the opportunity she had to pass universal health care in 1993. The truth is, Barack Obama's universal health care plan makes coverage affordable for every single American, he just doesn't agree with Hillary's plan to start by forcing everyone to buy insurance they can't afford," said campaign spokesperson Bill Burton.

The contest in the Hawkeye State remains in a heated 3-way statistical tie between Clinton, Obama and Senator John Edwards, But Clinton hopes that her message of being the most experienced candidate in the field will resonate with caucus goers. Clinton stressed that choosing the wrong candidate come January, could lead to shelving universal health care again for another 10 or 14 years.

With just 5 weeks before the Iowa caucus, and health care being the single most important issue to Iowans the debate is far from over.

Front-Runners Slipping In South Carolina? A new poll from Clemson University's Palmetto Poll finds that South Carolina voters are increasingly undecided in the presidential race, at the cost to front-runners Clinton and Giuliani. The former New York City mayor came with just 9 percent of support among Republicans, down from 18 percent in August. The GOP race is tightly bundled. Romney leads the field with 17 percent, followed by Thompson at 15 percent, Huckabee at 13 percent and McCain with 11 percent. Twenty-eight percent of Republicans remain undecided, according to the poll.

On the Democratic side, Clinton and Obama are in a statistical tie, with Clinton at 19 percent and Obama coming in with 17 percent. John Edwards trails with 12 percent. A whopping 49 percent of Democrats say they are undecided in the poll. Numbers like these only make Iowa and New Hampshire more important, as the winners of those contests are likely to head to South Carolina with a head of steam.

Around The Track

  • A new Rasmussen poll shows Huckabee leading Romney in Iowa 28 percent to 25 percent. It's the first poll to show Huckabee with a lead.
  • Giuliani's campaign went straight to Romney's backyard to criticize his tenure as governor of Massachusetts. Former Bay State governor Paul Cellucci and former state Treasurer Joseph Malone yesterday held a press conference blasting Romney's record as governor.
  • Joe Biden predicts one of the lower tier candidates will yet make a splash in the Democratic race. "I think one of us is going to end up supplanting one of the so-called top-tier candidates, I think, if you take a look, you give us each sort of our day, our time in the barrel to see if we rise up."
  • Has anyone really digested the impact of holding the Iowa caucuses just three days into the New Year? Chris Dodd wonders, telling the AP, "The earlier caucus date, particularly the proximity to that and the holiday season is going to add a dimension to this that we haven't really thought about in the past. I don't know what the impact of that will be."