St. Petersburg, Fla. -- Wednesday's CNN-YouTube presidential debate afforded me the unique opportunity to watch a former fat man throw his weight around and overwhelm his debate rivals, and then to watch an even bigger fat man come close to creating a security disaster right after the debate.
First, kudos to my colleagues at CNN. They put together the liveliest debate yet in the GOP presidential race. That a former general proclaimed himself gay, quizzed the candidates on military policy and gays, and then turned out to be a Hillary Clinton supporter didn't, in my view, pollute the integrity of the proceedings. Too much else went right.
Of much greater significance was the InsiderAdvantage/Florida Chamber of Commerce scientific poll conducted right after the debate.
Because Florida law prohibits opinion researchers from phoning households after 9 p.m., we started weeks ago to screen over 100,000 Florida Republican voters to participate in our poll. We found those who were undecided on whom to vote for, who planned to watch the debate, and who were willing to phone in afterward and tell us whom they thought won.
The results were overwhelming. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, just another obscure candidate a few weeks ago, won easily. Forty-four percent said he was the best debater of the night; Rudy Giuliani was a distant second with 18 percent.
Doubly startling was that our electronic survey of 1,035 Iowa Republican undecided voters, conducted in the final minutes of the debate, also showed Huckabee as the hands-down winner.
To me, several candidates stood out. Fred Thompson finally gathered himself and displayed an impressive combination of stamina, humor and authority. John McCain, although his policy positions are unpopular with many hard-core Republicans, also made a strong showing.
But clearly, Republican voters watching from home found a new conservative darling in Huckabee, if only for now.
Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney opened the debate with a nasty exchange. Its effect was to open the door for Huckabee to contrast himself by appearing as the calm, self-assured former chief executive. When Thompson and McCain joined in the crossfire of needling among the candidates, Huckabee's stock kept rising all the more.
In all honesty, it didn't dawn on me until the poll results came in after the debate that Huckabee also was able to retain his Christian conservative credentials without appearing "Christian judgmental." He was rational and compassionate.
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