ANALYSIS: Huckabee Shines in Lackluster Debate

Well, that was … thoroughly uninteresting. And that is fantastic, spectacular news for new Republican front-runner Mike Huckabee, and a giant missed opportunity for Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and all the rest of the would-be Iowa contenders.

Huckabee came into the day with a target on his back. His remarkable run of the past few weeks has been tarred by a flurry of bad press, and he's never truly been the focal point on a debate stage.

But that might have changed Wednesday afternoon. In the final gathering of the Republican field before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, nobody really engaged Huckabee, and he was able to speak (mostly unchallenged) in the forthright, plainspoken manner that's won him raves on the stump.

Blame it on the format limitations, a tactical reticence to go on the offensive, or maybe it's just that time flew by in Johnston, Iowa.

Whatever the reason, it amounts to a whiff for Romney, who would love to regain some traction in Iowa and is already engaging Huckabee in the first negative campaign ads of the election cycle.

Romney got in just a tiny tweak on education that won't get him very far. He never raised immigration or commutations or taxes -- and Iowans got an unfiltered, unchallenged look at this Huckabee guy who's been all over the news.

Winners:

Mike Huckabee: Nothing happened to slow his momentum, and plenty happened to suggest that it will continue.

Ron Paul: Loved the focus on questions of national debt, the Constitution and an overreaching federal government.

In neutral:

Mitt Romney: Missed chances to take on Huckabee, and Iowa voters will never get the one-on-one exchange that could have determined the caucus' outcome. Not a bad afternoon, but Romney could have used something dramatic to regain his footing.

John McCain: A nonfactor on the stage, which probably doesn't matter, because he's a nonfactor in the caucuses. But his fans could be reassured by another steady performance.

Losers:

Fred Thompson: Provided a highlight of the ho-hum debate by slapping down the debate moderator, refusing to raise his hand or answer a yes-or-no question. Guess he can kiss that Des Moines Register endorsement goodbye ...

Rudy Giuliani: Not an awful afternoon, but he provided some unintended comic relief. "I can't think of a public figure who's been more transparent."

Alan Keyes: Seriously, why was he on the stage?

The Des Moines Register: With apologies to my friends at this fine newspaper, the stilted format sapped anything interesting out of the room. A debate that could have gotten to the heart of the big divisions between the candidates instead devolved into a vessel for the delivery of pablum.

And it was bad enough to let Keyes on the stage, but did they have to let him trample the time limits, too?