THE NOTE: Hearting Huckabee

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This fight got so messy that Mitt Romney's hair was out of place even before last night's GOP debate started in Orlando. It was so intense that Rudy Giuliani may not have cared that his hated Red Sox were advancing to the World Series over on another Murdoch property. It was such compelling television that Fred Thompson stayed awake -- for the entire 90 minutes, give or take.

But now that we've seen the battle over who's the pure Republican play out in the open on a debate stage, the answer is -- none of the above.

We get it -- they all loathe Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. And when it comes to one another, the top-tier candidates have all memorized the opposition research -- and learned the requisite lines. "The debate stood out for the intensity and personal nature of the exchanges, as Republicans tried to distinguish themselves -- a tactic that risked highlighting the unhappiness among conservatives with much of the field," write Michael Cooper and Marc Santora in The New York Times.

The candidates who were on the offensive last night (that would be all of the Big Four) were sharply attacked themselves, and they came ready for combat. "Former Senator Fred Thompson sought to paint Rudy Giuliani as a liberal," ABC's David Chalian, Jan Simmonds, and Christine Byun report. "The battle for the conservative mantle continued when John McCain attempted to portray Mitt Romney as someone who has shifted his positions and focus on certain issues for political expediency."

But another candidate stayed out of the major dust-ups, and whether it was by design or by circumstance, it could help earn him another look -- and drive the news coming out of a big weekend in the GOP race. A day after his close second at the "Values Voters Summit" straw poll -- and two days after Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., exited stage right -- former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., again brought his humor to bear on real conservative substance at the debate.

Who wouldn't want to be in this position? "Huckabee, who has been crowding his way into the top tier of the race, stood by throughout the early exchanges, then chided the others for attacking one another, saying Americans are 'looking for a presidential candidate who's not so interested in a demolition derby against the other people in his own party,' " Dan Balz and Michael Shear write in The Washington Post.

Huckabee has had his moments earlier in the campaign (particularly out of the Ames straw poll) and has failed to cobble together the fund-raising numbers that would force himself into the top tier. He now reaches a key moment: Do evangelical leaders think he has a chance? If they do, then he does. If they don't, then he doesn't -- it's really that simple.

Other debate tidbits: Thompson, R-Tenn., did his homework this time, unleashing the kitchen sink on Giuliani, R-N.Y.: "sanctuary cities," Mario Cuomo, gun control, abortion. Giuliani "sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues," Thompson said, per Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times. Rudy showed that when he's hit, he'll hit back -- and hard: "[Thompson] voted against almost anything that would make our legal system fairer."

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