The third GOP debate is over, although there may be some who haven't realized it yet. What it lacked in firepower, it more than made up in pointlessness. And while CNN may not have been anywhere near as bad as MS-NBC, they should still be embarassed that their audience asked better questions than CNN's journalists.
The format for tonight's debate seemed forced and odd. First, Wolf Blitzer promised everyone that he wouldn't let the candidates dodge questions -- and then asked questions that made little sense. He wanted the candidates on stage to talk about Fred Thompson. He wanted answers on Genesis, and he wanted them now. Romney got to answer the same old question about his Mormonism.
The audience participation section went better than it did with MS-NBC -- and in fact better than the first half of CNN's show. The candidates got to actually answer questions on policy without Blitzer demanding that they hew to his tedious wording. For some reason, though, they had to wait five minutes while they forced the candidates to sit in chairs -- and most of them chose to stand instead while answering questions.
Next time, skip the gimmicks and focus on real issues.
How did the candidates do? No one did badly, but McCain suffered the most. He actually had moments of high eloquence, especially when responding to Tancredo, but he blew it big time at the end. He called the US a shining city on the hill, evoking Reagan, and then asserted that he "would not build fences and barriers" around it. Rhetorically, it's a great flourish -- but politically, it's suicide. He just reinforced the notion that he won't actually follow through on border security, which most Republicans believe involves building fences and barriers. All the work he did over the last two weeks to push back on immigration reform went up in a puff of smoke in New Hampshire.
Giuliani performed the best. He took advantage of a recurring technical glitch to demonstrate his sense of humor, and he gave great answers on national-security questions. He attacked Hillary Clinton -- again -- and was the only one on stage looking to move the debate to the Democrats -- again. He stung CNN, too, by turning around a Blitzer hypothetical about what he'd do if Petraeus reported no progress in September by asking Blitzer whether he'd bother reporting progress if it was being made.
Romney also did well. He parried the inane question about Mormonism, but got stung when someone asked why a candidate who wants English as an official language advertises in Spanish. Otherwise, Romney brought his command of detail to most of his answers.
Among the others, Mike Huckabee and Duncan Hunter did the best. Both looked presidential and showed real spirit on stage. Huckabee in particular exhibited the most warmth of anyone on the panel. Both men deserve better than their current positions, but with Fred Thompson entering the race, it seems unlikely they'll move up any time soon.
The rest didn't distinguish themselves. Ron Paul once again showed why he's a margin player, asserting that Iran "never did anything to us" and that the Iranians represent no national-security threat to the US. Tancredo came across as flustered and irritable, and his demand to stop all legal immigration assigned him to the Ron Paul fringe. Tommy Thompson switched from being a stiff to suddenly becoming oddly animated, waving his arms around and gesturing in an exaggerated manner. Jim Gilmore was ... Jim Gilmore.
In the next debate, we'll have eleven -- and we'll probably know even less. Let's hope that they start whittling down a few of the candidates, or they focus on just a few questions so we can get more than soundbite answers.