Some impressions of tonight’s debate. . .

before Dallas and Golden State tip off.
1. The format was poor. You can’t have a good debate with this many people, but at least you can have serious questions and an opportunity to discuss them. The questions from Politico’s readers were generally terrible — some frivolous, some left-wing talking points, some both. The questions from John Harris and Chris Matthews were generally better, but I think it was Matthews who brought up, in separate questions, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. The American left may want to hear Republican candidates talk about Rove and Libby, but I’m pretty sure Republican primary voters would rather hear more about the substantive issues.
2. Frankly, I think John McCain had the best night. He seemed a bit nervous at first, but soon found his stride. He managed more ably than his chief rivals, McCain and Romney, to give answers that will appeal to a reasonably full spectrum of Republican voters without seeming to pander to anyone.
3. Romney did well most of the time, but again seemed less than fully convincing on the pro-life vs. pro-choice questions. I was also a little surprised by his full-throated defense of the Massachusetts health insurance plan. I’ve heard him hedge a bit more on this issue in the past. I’m a Mitt-leaner, but I can’t help thinking he’s more focused on the image he’s projecting than McCain and Giuiliani are.
4. Giuliani didn’t pander, but was less successful than McCain in giving answers that will appeal across the spectrum. Indeed, his statement that he would be ok with a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, but also with a decision continiuing to uphold it, leaves him pretty vulnerable, it seems to me.
5. The rest of the field had their moments, but it’s difficult to see any of them breaking into the top tier as a result of this debate or as the result of anything else that’s likely to happen.
JOHN adds: You can check out the live-blog for the details, but I thought Romney did best by a pretty wide margin. Giuliani did OK question by question, I thought, but didn’t present as coherent a whole. McCain seemed surprisingly ill at ease, especially early on, and while I liked most of what he had to say, I don’t think he was as effective as usual. The consensus of our live-bloggers, with which I agree, was that Duncan Hunter did best among the lesser-known candidates.

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