The Note: Then There Were Four:

News flash (like a lightning bolt?): There are now four viable Republican candidates for president. Start with the three men who walked onto the middle of the stage last night in New Hampshire as front-runners and left the same way. And throw in the actor-senator-actor who is delaying his formal announcement for dramatic effect -- and media bounce.

The other seven candidates needed something game-changing last night, with one short month before the end of second-quarter fund-raising and two long months before the next GOP debate. They didn't get it. The third Republican debate of the 2008 cycle was a mostly cautious affair that cemented the field's dynamics, as the top tier gets better with every debate.

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., highlighted his 9/11 experience by attacking Democrats. (Was that electrical storm a message to Rudy, or was the Almighty sending Hizzoner a lifeline by turning a tough question about abortion into the funniest episode of the night?) Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., spoke eloquently about everything from his Mormon faith to energy security, and pitched himself as successor to Ronald Reagan. (But seriously, governor, is the nation ready for a president who uses the term "null set?") Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was virtually alone on the issue of immigration -- as expected -- but he spoke bluntly and personally about the war's toll. (Shades of the old McCain?)

All three front-runners "had moments in which they shined, providing voters in New Hampshire and nationwide glimpses of their potential strengths," Dan Balz and Michael Shear write in The Washington Post. They saw the immigration skirmishing as the debate's highlight, with McCain "isolated" -- but both McCain and his many critics left happy with what was said.

The Big Three weathered more than a few barbs, and former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., soared when talking about his faith. But that was eclipsed by the serial attacks on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and the efforts by all the men on stage to distance themselves from President Bush, per ABC's post-debate analysis.

The debate "highlighted the essence of the top three candidates," columnist Scot Lehigh writes in The Boston Globe. "Bottom line: Romney was most polished -- but McCain seemed most principled."

Then there's Fred Thompson, whose entry into the race will shrink -- not grow -- the field, since he's stealing the campaign rationale of perhaps five other candidates. The former senator, R-Tenn., upstaged all of his soon-to-be rivals on Fox News immediately after the debate. Say this about his nascent campaign: When it comes to managing media, they get it. Thompson used the appearance to launch his skeletal Website, www.ImWithFred.com, and to respond to his critics on the left and the right: "It's a badge of honor to get attacked by some of these bozos," he said.

Also today:

It's 2 1/2 years in prison for "Scooter" Libby. With the sentence likely to begin within two months, now commences the pardon drumbeat -- led by conservative commentators and helped along by the GOP candidates -- plopping a very big question squarely in the president's lap. "The issue could confront Bush in a matter of weeks when, barring a judicial change of heart, [Vice President Dick] Cheney's former chief of staff will have to trade his business suit for prison garb," Peter Baker reports in The Washington Post.

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