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

While the focus was on South Carolina, it was a busy day in Washington: mourning the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a new war czar, more Iraq wrangling, progress (perhaps) on immigration reform, and more bad news for Paul Wolfowitz and Alberto Gonzales.

Developments on Capitol Hill continue to shape the 2008 race. The Senate today will take a round of Iraq votes -- it's all politics, no policy, since none of the proposals can or will pass -- pitting the Democratic candidates in a cat-and-mouse game. Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times call it a sign of how much "presidential politics have, once again, become intertwined with the debate in Congress." LINK

The quick version: Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will vote for both Democratic proposals on Iraq -- including the one that would end funding for the war by next March -- even though neither of them fully favors either plan. Why? Pressure from liberal groups and rival candidates -- and unease in both camps over the proper political positioning on the war. Clinton aides like to say that Clinton and Obama have identical voting records on Iraq since Obama came to the Senate; here's guessing that they'll STILL have identical records when primary votes are cast early next year.

Immigration: Deal or no deal? The Senate's pushing back its votes into next week in the hopes of reaching a compromise, but this package has just enough moving pieces for everything to collapse. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing for McCain?

Resignation watch:

With the World Bank's directors considering Wolfowitz's fate today, it's time to restart the countdown. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow sent the message through six words delivered from his podium: "All options are on the table." Writes Peter S. Goodman of The Washington Post, "the White House has concluded, through conversations with counterparts in foreign capitals and from the committee report, that Wolfowitz can no longer effectively head the institution." LINK

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is still sticking around, but just when it looked like he'd weathered the political firestorm comes a scene you might have laughed at had it been on "24" -- with Gonzales in the role of the hapless functionary. In March 2004, Gonzales and Andrew Card -- then the White House counsel and chief of staff (let those titles sink in) -- shuttled between a hospital room and the White House in an (unsuccessful) effort to get then-attorney general John Ashcroft to sign off on extending a secret surveillance program.

What better stand-in for Gonzales' troubled tenure in the Bush administration than this image of him as errand boy, bungling an attempt to take advantage of an ailing man? All in "a dark-of-night attempt to emasculate the department he would soon lead," writes The Washington Post's Dana Milbank. LINK

The kicker:

The best argument for keeping the second tier around:

"Some of the people on this stage were very liberal in characterizing themselves as conservatives," former governor Jim Gilmore (R-Va.), promising to name more names today.

"I could use the bump," former governor Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.), practically begging Gilmore to work his name into his "Rudy McRomney" formulation. Suggestions? Maybe "Rudy McHuckney?" Or "Huck McRomniani?"

The Note's Must-Reads:

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The Note's Sneak Peek:

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