Huckabee deftly parried Thompson's aggressive and spirited attacks early in the debate. It was a battle on terrain that was unfriendly to Huckabee, and Thompson attacked with skill. And yet Huckabee got out of the exchange unscathed.
The exchange with Thompson came early in the debate, and Huckabee was just getting warmed up. For the first time in this campaign, Huckabee looked like a credible commander in chief when the conversation turned to those Iranian speedboats. His normal joviality vanished, replaced by an appropriate gravity.
Then he got even better. He seized on a characteristic piece of Ron Paul idiocy to give a spirited speech defending America's commitment to Israel. Again, he looked credible as a commander in chief. But this was also an extremely shrewd piece of politicking. Conservative foreign policy types obviously loved it as did pro-Israel people. But Huckabee's core audience of conservative Christians, a much larger segment of the society than either of the other two groups, adored it also.
Mike Huckabee's an exceptional politician whose package of skills is often sold short. He's a lot more than an affable dispenser of one-liners who only knows how to play to the home crowd. For people who might be inclined to dismiss Huckabee, compare his response to Thompson's adroit offensive with McCain's blundering into the climate warming thicket. These two are the likely finalists, and one of them is much better at politics than the other.
Here's what I said on November 28, the night of the YouTube debate, the night that catapulted Huckabee to his huge lead in Iowa: "Was this a seismic night? I'll give that one a big yes. Tonight heralded the arrival of Mike Huckabee as a force in this race. Not a spoiler, not a wildcard, but a force."
Although fewer people watched last evening's festivities, tonight was even bigger for Huckabee. For the first time, it was not only possible but easy to imagine Huckabee as the leader of 300 million people. He combined this newfound authority with his old standbys of off-the-charts likability and a deft way of tapping into aspirational politics.
In the race for the Republican nomination, Mike Huckabee is going to be tough to beat.
Fred Barnes likewise says Huckabee won the debate:
For what it's worth, here's how I'd rank the performances of the candidates in the debate: 1) Huckabee 2) McCain 3) Thompson 4) Mitt Romney 5) Rudy Giuliani 6) Paul.