Well, that was damn enjoyable. Jonathan Martin wonders if this was the conservative caricature debate. Yeah, I think the God, guns, gays, and the Confederate flag combo could have been a little more subtle, though they did save the more "gotcha" questions for the second half.
I'm giving it to Huckabee. He's always good in debates, always well-spoken. He parried attacks on his fiscal record well, deflecting with a lot of talk about the Fair Tax. He also got the chance to point out that he had signed the no-tax pledge, which is better than several others have done. He's riding a high, he came across as sensitive and smart, and was able to obscure his non-conservative record.
Second, I'm gonna say Fred, oddly enough. He didn't speak often enough (he's gotta jump in there more often) but I thought his answers were more detailed than usual, and he had a laugh line almost every time he spoke. Those stick with people. His answer on the Confederate flag was a particularly good one that probably satisfied all constituencies. He's, of course, practiced in that kind of thing, but I'm sure the other candidates are glad they didn't get the same question. His answer about reforming entitlements was also good. And, of course, he got a really harsh attack ad in as his 30-second spot, casting himself as a true conservative against his rivals while taking almost no attacks on himself.
Romney was good-- probably better than Fred on the face-- but he took so many shots, I can't give him second place. He came across serious and conservative. I thought he made Giuliani look like the mean one on the immigration question and got the better of that battle. When he fought with McCain about torture, he didn't have the moral authority that McCain has, but he made a point that many, many conservatives agree with. McCain was powerful, but not many conservatives agree with him.
I'm putting McCain and Rudy at a tie for the last of the front-runners. Rudy hit his stride in several places, but was overall, not as good as he usually is. He was confronted more boldly by voters on some of his socially liberal positions than he usually is by the press, and his answers were a little less than stellar. He made great points in places, but he took a lot of flack in the process.
McCain was strong on spending and the war, and decent throughout, but came across as a little more dour than usual. I could have used just a bit more of his jokes, which are usually good, to lighten the tone. Many of his answers were moving, but won't necessarily play well with his audience-- immigration and torture, specifically. Conservatives will continue to respect him, but he wasn't working it for me tonight, except on the war and spending.
Update: Matt gives more momentum to McCain than I. Who knows? It may play in New Hampshire, where he's traditionally strong. He's undoubtedly competent on that stage.