The Note: On to Ames

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This post-debate snapshot brought to you by Rudolph Giuliani's priest: Either former governor Mike Huckabee or Sen. Sam Brownback -- but not both -- could still matter in this race. Sen. Barack Obama is now enough of a player to be the designated GOP punching bag (though Vice President Dick Cheney is suddenly a close second). Rep. Ron Paul no longer has a lock on the farthest-out-there debate lines (think the Saudis will let Rep. Tom Tancredo near their border?). And it's time for former governor Tommy Thompson and Rep. Duncan Hunter to turn out the lights (with Ames on Saturday to make it semi-official).

As for the top tier, former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., walked on to the stage as the frontrunner in Iowa, and left the stage the same way. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had his moments (got to love the visual of Cheney heading up a telecommunications task force) but missed too many others as he seemed to fade into the set. And while Giuliani, R-N.Y., drew laughter by saying that only a priest (perhaps including George Stephanopoulos' father) could hear the list of his mistakes, Iowa was and remains slightly foreign territory for Hizzoner. (Dissing David Yepsen in Des Moines is a bit like throwing Cal Ripken out of Camden Yards.)

It was Romney who had the best zinger of the morning (Obama has "gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week," he said.) It was Romney whose stage presence again made him the focal point (while he put just enough distance between himself and President Bush). And most importantly, it was Romney who was prepared for the inevitable attacks, which he parried like a pro. ("I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have," he said of Brownback's criticism of his abortion record.)

Mostly, it was a day defined by attacks on Democrats, with Obama, D-Ill., replacing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., as the favorite target. "Each of the contenders sought to carefully cast themselves as a forceful agent of change for a White House besieged by criticism though hewing a line of not directly attacking President Bush's leadership," writes Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune. "Instead the GOP contenders largely teed off on Democratic candidates' calls to quickly bring U.S. troops home and for adopting a 'political correctness' that refused to identify terrorists as radical Islamic extremists."

Most of the field stood by the troop surge in Iraq -- even Romney, who offered no further hints of straying from the reservation. "Over all, the candidates were adamant about continuing the fight," write Adam Nagourney and Michael Cooper of The New York Times. "For the most part, the candidates made little effort to distance themselves from President Bush and Republicans in Congress, reflecting how they are trying to appeal to a decidedly conservative electorate that will vote in the caucuses here."

The Brownback-Romney abortion tussle added to an "air of urgency" at the debate, with the Ames straw poll looming this weekend -- a contest that's expected to thin the ranks of GOP candidates, writes Thomas Beaumont of the Des Moines Register. "The Brownback-Romney exchange illustrates the party base's concern with core issues going into the Ames straw poll," Beaumont writes. Huckabee, R-Ark., and Brownback, R-Kan., are competing for the same slice of Republicans (a cohort that may have been in church instead of watching the debate).

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