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Grading the New Hampshire debates

Who won tonight’s debates? The biggest winner of the night was foreign policy itself. Both of tonight’s debates began with issues of international concern, which, as I mentioned earlier, have also dominated the stump speeches I’ve attended here in New Hampshire. That ought to put to rest for good the notion that international affairs is no longer ...

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MANCHESTER, NH - JANUARY 05: Republican presidential hopefuls (L-R) Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani take a break from a televised debate at Saint Anselm College January 5, 2008 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates faced off in debates this evening prior to Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Who won tonight’s debates? The biggest winner of the night was foreign policy itself. Both of tonight’s debates began with issues of international concern, which, as I mentioned earlier, have also dominated the stump speeches I’ve attended here in New Hampshire. That ought to put to rest for good the notion that international affairs is no longer the dominant issue the 2008 campaign.

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images

Now for the candidates’ performances in the debates. The GOP debate was not so much characterized by winners as much as it was by losers. The biggest loser of the debate was Mitt Romney, who spent the night looking like a whipped dog. By my count, the only candidate who didn’t jump on the Romney dog pile was Ron Paul. Romney tried to fend off Mike Huckabee with the jab, “Don’t try to characterize my positions.” Huckabee shot back, “Which ones?” Ouch. Rudy Giuliani, who performed strongly tonight for a change, slammed Romney by saying that even Ronald Reagan would, “be in one of Mitt’s negative commercials.” That hurts. John McCain informed Romney that, “you can spend your whole fortune on attack ads, but it still won’t make it true.” Death blow.

Here in Manchester, the pain continued in the debate’s “spin room.” McCain’s spinsters, including Sen. Lindsay Graham, continued the slams on Romney. They clearly have him in their sights. With a second-place finish in Iowa, plummeting polls in New Hampshire, and the worst debate performance of the night (save for the desperate and pathetic performance of Ron Paul, who will hopefully be put to rest in New Hampshire), Romney has reason to be concerned.

Here are my grades for the GOPers tonight, in order from best to worst:

  1. John McCain: A
  2. Rudy Giuliani: A-
  3. Mike Huckabee: B+
  4. Fred Thompson: B-
  5. Mitt Romney: C-
  6. Ron Paul: D-

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images

The foreign-policy debate on the Democratic side was dominated by issues of nuclear terror and Iraq. Of all the candidates, Hillary Clinton sounded the most like a commander in chief to me… until she was asked about taking out Osama bin Laden were she to be given actionable intelligence that he was in Pakistan. Clinton said that, “once the missiles are launched, the Pakistani government must know they are on the way.” That’s a questionable proposition. Obama and Edwards did not seize on it. Smart staffers working for them ought to.

Otherwise, most of the Democratic debate was generally a wash. I don’t necessarily see big winners or losers. I would note, however, that on foreign policy the Dem debate was dominated by Bush-bashing. It was a disappointing byproduct of an otherwise substantive debate that included excellent detailed sparring on such issues as energy policy. Barack Obama’s performance was generally timid, but that’s to be expected from an emerging frontrunner carrying a lot at risk. Obama was aided greatly tonight by John Edwards, who did most his job for him tonight by attacking Clinton and forcing her to defend the status quo. More later on how the spinsters here in Manchester see it.

Here are my grades for the Dems tonight, also in order from best to worst:

  1. Hillary Clinton: A
  2. Barack Obama: A-
  3. John Edwards: B
  4. Bill Richardson: B-

As final side note, kudos to ABC’s Charles Gibson for moderating the best debate yet held in this election cycle. He provoked several notable exchanges in both debates, but what particularly stands out is Democratic exchange on “change,” an amorphous topic that otherwise might have continued to be bantered about unchallenged. Thanks, Charlie.

More tomorrow from the trail in New Hampshire.

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