Impressions

I listened to the Republican candidates’ South Carolina debate with one ear while writing the post immediately below. So I was left with big-picture impressions. Here they are.
In the first debate, Mitt Romney far outperformed the field. That wasn’t true tonight. Romney did well, as he always does, but he didn’t outclass his main competitors.
The big winners were Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, who both improved on mediocre performances the first time out. Rudy seized the opportunity to respond to a Ron Paul answer that more or less endorsed the idea that September 11 was our fault. Rudy blew that idea away, and the audience went wild. That is the space that he needs to occupy.
McCain had several good opportunities, and did well with them. Asked about his opposition to the Bush tax cuts, he praised them, saying they had dramatically improved federal revenues. He explained that he opposed them because they were not accompanied by any reining in of spending. That could be regarded as inconsistent, but more fundamentally, it’s the point McCain needs to make. Cutting taxes is the easy part, but ultimately, notwithstanding the pro-growth consequences of tax cuts, spending has to be restrained.
McCain also got in a slam at Congress under the Democrats–its current approval level is accounted for by staffers and relatives–and had a good opportunity to defend his “anti-torture” position. I’m sort of on the other side of that issue, partly because I think that waterboarding is a very effective interrogation technique that doesn’t constitute torture, but I respect McCain’s opinion, and he had a good opportunity to express it.
Of the second-tier candidates, the one who most distinguished himself was Mike Huckabee, mostly because he got off the night’s best one-liner: Congress is spending money “like John Edwards at a beauty shop.” The crowd went crazy, and rightly so.
Nothing was settled tonight, unless you used to be a Ron Paul fan. But the contest is starting to heat up.
UPDATE: In response to those who ask, “Don’t you guys ever disagree?”, see Paul’s post below.

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