Manchester, N.H. -- As is usually the case in a Republican debate, the big winner of the night was God.
But John McCain finished a close second.
This was vintage McCain. Perhaps energized by being in New Hampshire, home of his greatest political triumph in 2000, he provided the two most emotional moments of the night. The first came in his response to a question asked by Erin Flanagan, whose younger brother had been killed in Iraq eight days before he was scheduled to return home in December 2005.
McCain rose from his chair and, his voice choked with emotion, thanked her for her brother's service and offered "a little straight talk" on the war, which he said had been "badly mismanaged for a long time," leading to "unnecessary" deaths.
Of course, he then went on to defend the current surge strategy, and warned of Iraq turning into "a center of terrorism" if we withdraw -- but, however wrong his position, it was McCain at his passionate best.
Indeed, he so clearly connected with the woman and the audience that every other candidate immediately followed suit and began getting off their stools for just about every answer given after that (David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief, the mastermind behind the debates' split format, told me that he was surprised that none of the Democrats had stood up from their seats in the second half of their debate. "I told them there were no seat belts on their chairs and they should feel free to get up if they wanted to. But no one did.").
McCain also took what could be his greatest liability in the GOP primaries -- his sponsorship of the immigration bill -- and turned it to his advantage by connecting immigration to military service, his resume trump card.
"My friends," he said, "I want you, the next time you're down in Washington, DC, to go to the Vietnam War Memorial and look at the names engraved in black granite. You'll find a whole lot of Hispanic names." And with that, the hot button issue of immigration was instantly and powerfully covered in a patriotic patina. It won't end the howls from the GOP base, but it might win him some converts to his position among independents -- which is especially important in New Hampshire where independent voters are a plurality, and can choose as late as Election Day which party primary they vote in.
And thanking Tom "Press 1-thru-10 for English" Tancredo in Spanish was a nice touch.
By contrast, Rudy Giuliani seemed a tad unhinged. He tried to have it both ways when it came to terror and national security, claiming on one hand that the sacrifice of American lives in Iraq "is one of the reasons we're safe now in the United States," while on the other hand repeatedly raising the specter of Islamic terrorists who will do us all in if we don't put him in the White House.
He wasted no time in referencing the plot to attack JFK airport, working it into his second answer of the night, in response to a question about Iran. He also lumped the questionable JFK plot with the equally questionable Fort Dix plot -- making it sound like both of those gangs that couldn't jihad straight had taken their orders directly from Osama bin Laden.
He also twice sang the praises of "nation-building," and suggested that things might be going better in Iraq if we... kept better statistics? "We should probably have an IraqStat program, in which we measure how many people are going to school, how many factories are open, how many people are going back to work." At another point he offered this ode to good data: "You get what you measure; if you don't measure success, you have failure."
But in all his talk about stats, he never mentioned the most important numbers: the number of Americans killed, and the hundreds of billions of dollars squandered in Iraq.
He also showed that he is marching in lock step with Laura Bush on the real problem with Iraq (other than a lack of good stats): the darn media just not reporting enough of the good news going on there. "Suppose General Petraeus comes back in September," he said, "and reports that things are going pretty well. Are we going to report that with the same amount of attention that we would report the negative news?" Damn you, David Gregory!
For his part, Mitt Romney, the third member of the GOP top tier, swung for the fences -- reaching for a Reaganesque Big Picture Optimism -- but struck out, managing to draw little more than head scratches with his repeated admonitions that we need to "stop worrying about the problems" and "focus on the future" -- a bright future made glorious by selling "products" to Chinese consumers. Exactly what products are we going to be selling them, Mitt -- labels that read, "Made in China"?
A few other debate quick hits:
Romney's makeup seemed off. During the first part of the debate, it looked like he had a shiner under his right eye. He needs to put in a call to Kriss Soterion who did Hillary's killer makeup job on Sunday. (I saw her after the Democratic debate and invited her to blog.)
Mike Huckabee was very smooth, very articulate (particularly when talking about his religious faith), and the funniest of the bunch. Too bad he really believes the world was Created in six days.
It was amazing to see how far the Republicans have come on the need to change our energy policy, stressing the need for an Apollo Project and making the case that our dependence on foreign oil is a national security crisis. The discussion on energy could have been lifted directly from a Democratic debate... or a Detroit Project ad.
Tommy Thompson had the jaw dropper of the night, claiming that George W. Bush would be the perfect person to lecture the youth of America on "honesty" and "integrity." Sure, he can go on a lecture tour with Scooter Libby and Duke Cunningham. And enough of the "I'm not the actor" jokes, Governor. Thompson should go ahead and just quit now.
Watch my post-debate analysis for CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 here.