The Note: Debate No. 2

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Rudolph Giuliani (R-N.Y.) found his campaign voice last night in South Carolina -- and, predictably, it wasn't abortion or guns or gay marriage that got him back on track. When Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) treaded near his backyard, suggesting in a rambling answer that US foreign policy was to blame for 9/11, Giuliani interjected with an indignant, confrontational response that will be one of the few moments remembered from last night's second GOP presidential debate. One operative for a rival campaign said this morning that Giuliani "went yard on a gopher ball" by taking on Paul, but those homers count, too.

So his answers on abortion weren't quite crisp (Hillary lines are playing to the cheap seats in front of GOP crowds). Giuliani still got exactly what he needed last night, and that point was only hammered home by the schoolyard scuffling between former governor Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). (Anyone else catch Romney -- still the best stage presence among the 10 on stage -- clamoring for a 30 seconds to match Giuliani's line?)

To summarize Round Two: Great moment at a critical time for a reeling Giuliani; great sparring - but few solid sound bites -- between Romney and McCain; some fabulous lines from the second tier (instant classic: Mike Huckabee's quip about Congress spending more than "John Edwards at a beauty shop"); and lots of frustration among the crew that's competing with the margin of error (is this the moment for Jim Gilmore, Mr. "Rudy McRomney" himself?). And finally (thanks, Fox News, for opening it up a bit), the candidates named names.

"Winning" or "losing" a debate is about how you stack up compared to expectations. ABC News' Jake Tapper and David Chalian call it a good night for both Giuliani and McCain, who showed "sturdier performances than the first debate." They also note that, once again, President Bush was ignored, mentioned only once last night, by Paul. LINK

The New York Times' Adam Nagourney and Marc Santora saw key distinctions emerging from provocative questions about a terrorist attack. McCain defended his opposition to torture, but found little company, and Giuliani fell back on 9/11 (notice a theme?): "I don't want to see another 3,000 people dead in New York or any place else." Advantage: Rudy. LINK

Another story with legs -- Romney vs. McCain. Lines like this are too pat not to have been prepared in advance: "My fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad," Romney said. McCain, pitching himself as the true conservative, had a ready response: "I haven't changed my position in even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for." Ouch. Politico's Jonathan Martin has the debate continuing in the spin room, with Romney's son, Tagg, saying his dad "makes some of the candidates who thought they were going to be the eventual nominee a little nervous." LINK

The early consensus among conservative commentators: The night belonged to Giuliani. Writes Fred Barnes on The Weekly Standard's Web site: "One thing, and one thing only, happened at the Republican presidential debate last night: Rudy Giuliani escaped the clutches of the abortion issue." LINK

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