THE NOTE: Huck Rises Above GOP Squabbles

Maybe Mitt Romney won by kicking more illegal immigrants out more quickly than his major rivals

(and, while tending his backyard, adding another year to Red Sox fans' suffering).

Maybe Rudy Giuliani won by besting King Kong, taming snowfall, and bringing the Yankees World Championships (all in one night where he got away with barely answering the latest charges against him).

Maybe John McCain won by condemning torture (though he does seem to make a Ron Paul exception -- a Hitler comparison? Bet his campaign gets an email or two today.).

Maybe Ron Paul won by spending some of his millions on a plane that circled downtown St. Pete Wednesday afternoon (and, of course, winning the online polls).

Maybe Fred Thompson . . . was present and alert for most of the evening (though his gun-rights defense qualified him least likely to get shot by a questioner -- and his YouTube video is a new strategy, should he choose to accept it).

But maybe the GOP candidates who had all those scheduling problems before agreeing to Wednesday evening's CNN-YouTube debate should have been more worried about one of their rivals than about the questioners. And Maybe there's a reason that former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., is suddenly a top-tier contender in Iowa.

At the first debate since Huckabee's emergence, he was the most consistent and confident star of a scattered, fractured stage -- witty, self-deprecating, and seemingly genuine in a way that his (still better-known) rivals could only envy. (And, thanks to Chuck Norris, he even won the game of spin-room buzz.)

"The debate showcased some of the fierce battles that have raged recently between Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney," Michael Cooper and Marc Santora write in The New York Times. Yet it was Huckabee in a "central role, demonstrating how he had come from behind to show strength in several recent polls of Iowa caucusgoers."

Huckabee's rivals can thank him defusing perhaps the trickiest question of the night -- about whether Jesus would believe in the death penalty -- with a response for the highlight reel: "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office."

And on immigration -- now more than ever the top issue in the GOP race -- he issued a passionate defense of a policy that is deeply unpopular with the Republican base (as if such a thing were allowed anymore.) "In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did," Huckabee said while tangling with Romney over his decision to let the children of illegal immigrants apply for state-sponsored scholarships.

The immigration exchange between Giuliani, R-N.Y., and Romney, R-Mass., set the tone for an aggressive evening. They got busy "accusing each other of providing havens for undocumented immigrants -- Giuliani as mayor, and Romney on his lawn," Celeste Katz and David Saltonstall write in the New York Daily News.

"In another indication the Republican nomination is truly up for grabs, their toughest interrogators were each other," ABC's Jake Tapper writes. "In many instances the disagreement among the eight Republican contenders were not just political arguments, there was tangible disdain."

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