10:16 pm ET: That’s it for tonight. Tune in to The Note tomorrow for more analysis, and thanks for reading…
10:12 pm ET: Wrapping thoughts…. You could make an argument for lots of different winners: Romney, Giuliani, and McCain all had strong moments. But the biggest night belonged to Mike Huckabee. At a moment when many voters are just tuning in, and hearing about this Huckabee guy, he turned in a really strong performance, showing flashes of humor, and defusing tough questions. I thought going in that he would have a rough evening, but he really soared.
10:10 pm ET: Wrong number, Mitt!! It’s 86, not 87 long years. C’mon — that is a major league flub.
10:08 pm ET: We’ve heard, Rudy, about how you beat Clinton on the line-item veto — but he can’t like answering those questions.
10:02 pm ET: Romney actually had a substantive answer when asked about the Confederate flag: "My own view is that this country can go beyond that kind of stuff. . . . That flag, frankly, is divisive, and shouldn’t be shown." Paging South Carolina . . .
10 pm ET: Another strong answer from Huckabee — he’s had a lot of them today.
9:57 pm ET: Hillary hasn’t been on stage much tonight, but Huckabee just sent her to Mars.
9:57 pm ET: ABC’s Christine Byun: "Thompson comes alive when talking about Social Security – you have to hand it to him, he’s the only one to touch "the third rail" with some sort of fervor."
9:49 pm ET: Not that time, Gov. Romney? Finally Anderson Cooper bores in, and Romney slithers away on the question of gays in the military. ABC’s Matt Stuart reports that Romney wrote in 1994 that he hoped don’t ask don’t tell would be "the first in a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation’s military."
9:40 pm ET: Thompson does have a sense of humor — that did sort of look like him. And if you’re scoring at home, two questioners have now threatened to shoot the candidates.
9:37 pm ET: ABC’s Jan Simmonds, on that torture debate: Rudy, with his head down, looked like that he did not want to enter McCain and Romney’s debate over waterboarding. Luckily, McCain obliged.
9:33 pm ET: Fred Thompson uses a lot of words to say not a lot.
9:30 pm Et: Here’s comes McCain — astonished that Romney would supporter waterboarding. He has more credibility on this issue than anyone else on this (or basically any other) stage. "Life is not 24 and Jack Bauer." He got a straight-ahead opportunity to make a case his candidacy depends upon.
9:26 pm ET: John McCain found his way to give these lines to brag about being "right" on Iraq — but it’s almost 90 minutes into a debate that he’s barely been involved in.
9:23 pm ET: Rudy’s got the best video of the night. King Kong! Hillary! Cutting snowfall! That’s the spirit!
9:22 pm ET: That inspiring piece of YouTube theater is Romney’s new ad, "Historic Change," ABC’s Matt Stuart reports.
9:17 pm ET: I’m not smart enough to know whether Giuliani had a good answer about whether he believes every word of the Bible, but that seemed like an excellent response. And then — Huckabee just knocks it out of the park.
9:15 pm ET: Huckabee got out of a tough one: Would Jesus support the death penalty? That’s a really interesting question — I’d have liked a direct answer.
9:12 pm ET: Rudy managed to say there was a "problem" with Roe v. Wade without really changing his position on abortion.
9:11 pm ET: Fred’s windups are far more complicated than his pitches. Does he need to walk us through what the question is before (not really) answering?
9:07 pm ET: Sorry, Gov. Romney, but that’s a strategy to combat violence in the inner city — to get more moms and dads? But nice of him to remind us that he didn’t have a police commissioner — could have been more subtle, and said, he didn’t have a police commissioner named Bernie.
9:04 pm ET: Again Thompson won’t answer specifics — this time about guns. Why not drop a make and model if you own "a couple of guns"? Duncan Hunter gets the spirit of the question. (Romney, with that weird laugh, really didn’t.)
9:01 pm ET: Rudy’s back with his numbers. It makes it seem like he’s answering questions forthrightly, in ways Republican voters would agree with, when in fact he’s bucking GOP dogma. You have to listen to his answers very carefully.
8:59 pm ET: Good for Duncan Hunter for taking a brief break from kissing up to the NRA by talking about gun safety before he talks Second Amendment.
8:58 pm ET: That was a particularly poor showing from McCain, in his video.
8:52 pm ET: "What’s up with that?" Cooper asks. What’s up is that Fred Thompson’s campaign knows they need to do something dramatic, so they used their clip as an effective attack ad. For what it’s worth, Romney’s "I was wrong" is appropriately concise. Either voters will hold his former position on abortion against him, or they won’t.
8:48 pm ET: Good call by CNN to ask Rudy about the news of the day, but where’s the follow-up? "I had nothing to do with the handling of their records." And Giuliani says it were handled "perfectly appropriately." Says Anderson Cooper: "Great." Really, that worked for you?
8:43 pm ET: Grover Norquist counts as a real person?? C’mon, CNN, he gets to talk to these guys all the time, and he knows their answers already…
8:42 pm ET: And McCain takes a page from Rudy Giuliani’s book by attacking Ron Paul!! Did not see this coming. Remember that beating up on Dr. No served Rudy very, very well six months or so ago.
8:41 pm ET: From ABC’s Christine Byun: "Man with a plan(s)? Thompson’s really leaning on all his policy plans – remember my immigration plan? Remember my social security plan? Apparently, no one in the audience did — no applause — whereas Huckabee’s IRS answer touched a nerve with those sitting in the theater.
8:39 pm ET: Ron Paul: Cut energy, education, and homeland security. So he gets specific, at least — would love to see a show of hands for those who agree with him on those three. Huckabee gets the good line by saying he’d cut the IRS — and those Fair Tax people are active on their issue.
8:37 pm ET: So Fred Thompson is asked to name three specific programs he’d cut — and then doesn’t name any specific programs. A dodge?
8:32 pm ET: Ron Paul will not gain many converts by talking about "conspiracy theories" espoused by his followers. Don’t forget that this is a big night for him too — he’d rather be talking about some of ideas that align more closely with, say, sanity.
8:30 pm ET: ABC’s Matt Stuart reports: Romney just made the immigration issue a fiscal discipline issue. "That’s not your money. That’s the tax payers money."
8:28 pm ET: Huckabee’s learning early on that this debating thing’s harder when you’re an actual real candidate. But he is actually standing by a policy that doesn’t poll very well among Republican voters — seems confident and secure. "We’re a better country than to punish children for what their parents did."
8:27 pm ET: So we’re almost one-fourth into the allotted time, and we’ve covered exactly one issue…
8:23 pm ET: Tancredo’s good line: "All I’ve heard is people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo." And you know what? He’s right.
Cane27: You’re right, usually they’re called "former" if they’re not in office anymore…
8:21 pm ET: Surely McCain would have wished for a different issue to start with — but he takes the prize for the first mention of a prominent Florida Republican, in associated himself with Sen. Mel Martinez.
8:17 pm ET: A good softball for Fred Thompson to start off with — ABC’s Christine Byun notes that "no amnesty" is a main plank of Thompson’s immigration plan. (And anyone doubt what the No. 1 issue is for Republican voters?) But Thompson doesn’t seem comfortable AT ALL delivering those blows. Awful oohs and ahhs from the crowd.
8:13 pm ET: And Romney gets the first applause by noting that illegal immigrants already broke the law. (Rudy’s not smiling.) And when Rudy talked about the "sanctuary mansion" of Romney’s house, the crowd didn’t seem to like it. Wonder how that plays at home . . . Romney is engaging very, very directly — and dare I say he’s getting the better of Giuliani in this exchange, funny accents and all. AND THIS IS RIVETING TELEVISION!
8:12 pm ET: Rudy gets the first question, on "sanctuary cities." "New York City was not a sanctuary city." (Wait for everyone to start picking that statement apart.) But Rudy was ready for this question — it’s a substantive, detailed answer — more detailed than he’s been in the past. He likes to bowl people over with statistics. A good answer to a tough question.
8:10 pm ET: I’m always the type who shuts SNL off when we get the first musical number — this was amusing, but come on — isn’t this why the GOP candidates didn’t want to do this?
8:08 pm ET: Thanks, Anderson Cooper, for telling us what we won’t see… but we did spy Chuck Norris in the crowd, on hand on behalf of Huckabee.
7:55 pm ET: Here’s a prediction — the sharpest jab tonight won’t involve Romney and Rudy, but Mike Huckabee and someone else. He’s gotten a free ride at most of the previous debates — and that could end tonight.
7:34 pm ET: ABC’s Christine Byun reports: With less than 30 mins to go — Fredheads are on their phones right now, listening into pre-debate commentary on a nationwide conference call. John Rich, country singer, is on the call, pumping up supporters. Rich says Thompson’s "a real guy … you can tell Fred really means what he’s saying," and is challenging the supporters to "step it up." Former Senator George Allen (R.-Va) and Thompson’s wife, Jeri, will also be participating throughout the debate with their commentary. This from Jeri: "We’re really excited to be here and see what’s going to happen."
7:08 pm ET: A few quick notes before