10:41 pm: And so the road ends. Quick thoughts: Fred Thompson turned in another strong debate performance, and Frank Luntz’s focus group confirms it. This state is his last shot, and if people are tuning in to make up their minds, they saw a strong presence, from a candidate in control of his facts. John McCain had a good night — immigration came up, but he wasn’t bloodied on the issue. Huckabee wasn’t fantastic, and had to contend with a feisty Thompson. Ron Paul was Ron Paul, with the hearing aid turned down. And Mitt Romney’s worst fears were realized — he was not a factor. An incredible final three debates for Romney — he was the focus of the first two, on Saturday because he was being attacked and on Sunday because he was so aggressive. Tonight, he was ignored — a statement of how the other candidates are handicapping his candidacy.
That’s it for tonight, guys, thanks for clicking. Read more tomorrow, as always, in The Note.
10:35 pm: The Thompson campaign says he’s used the "high fence, wide gates" lines at least a dozen times on the stump. I’m surprised, though, he hasn’t broken it out in a debate before tonight.
10:33 pm: That was an excellent question for Giuliani about whether he’d object to other cities using "sanctuary" practices, like allowing illegal immigrants to report crimes without being asked about immigration status. And Rudy did not answer it. Not even close. He talked way over time, and never answered a very direct question.
10:28 pm: Where has this Thompson been? High fences and wide gates — good line. This is a fine, fine performance by Fred Thompson.
10:26 pm: TheIdiot — you’re right, I typed too soon on Huckabee. He did start to engage on the answer.
10:25 pm: It sounds like John McCain has found a workable answer on immigration. That was a long time coming, and it is no small feat. But why does he know how to secure the borders because he’s from a state where he says the "borders are broken"?
10:24 pm: Did people just applaud because a moderator just said the word "immigration"? Wow.
10:17 pm: Huckabee just keeps unfurling the zingers instead of talking about this statement about women submitting themselves to their husbands. Turns it into a broad question of belief. Nothing like laughter to disarm. "With all due respect, it has nothing to do with the presidency," he said. That was not a direct answer, if you were scoring at home.
10:14 pm: So Rudy doesn’t want to mix it up with McCain. He’s asked to respond to McCain and goes off on Democrats about taking change out of pockets and some such. But does turning down a check from an "Arab prince" constitute foreign-policy experience?
10:13 pm: From ABC’s Ron Claiborne: "McCain much more in control than last weekend in the two New Hampshire debates …. Aggressive and to some people nasty and petty in the ABC-Facebook debate … Somewhat subdued and passive in the fox forum last sunday. He seems more comfortable tonight …. assertive but not strident."
10:11 pm: OK, so Fred Thompson came to play tonight. Clearly he sees Huckabee as his biggest threat in South Carolina. May be too little, too late, but he’s scoring some points tonight.
10:10 pm: Mike Huckabee just cited "Truckers" magazine. That must be the first time in presidential debate history that that fine publication was quoted.
10:10 pm: From ABC’s Jan Simmonds: "Now that’s back to normal. While Chris Wallace asks if John McCain is a Washingtom insider, you hear the hearty laugh of America’s Mayor noting his agreement that such a charge is unfounded."
10:09 pm: From ABC’s David Chalian: "Nothing says not Washington insdier like invoking "Jack Abramoff" in your debate answer."
10:06 pm: Romney gets a clear shot out of the break: "I keep hearing the same thing: That Washington is broken." He’s convinced that the same people shouldn’t be sent to Washington. This will be tested on Tuesday, in Michigan. "I know how to bring Washington." Again — was there any reason why this wasn’t what Mitt Romney was running on from the very start?
10:04 pm: Anyone seen Mitt Romney recently? Nobody’s engaging him tonight — huge difference from ABC’s debate Saturday, when everyone attacked him with relish.
10 pm: "The defense of Israel if of critical importance to the United States of America," Giuliani said. (And the Jews in Florida cheer.)
9:58 pm: Macy — you make a good point about Huckabee. I wonder if this evening allows him to fill in some of the gaps in what he’s shown of his expertise in foreign policy.
9:56 pm: From ABC’s Ron Claiborne: McCain was exacty where he wants to be when panelist Wendell Goler brought up Iraq …. Today is anniversary of announcement of the surge …. McCain wants to run on the surge. He thinks this issue works for him because, as he just said, "we are succeeding." Giuliani goes after McCain, saying he — Giuliani — also oo supported the surge. McCain looks a little surprised that Rudy has singled him out — but he doesn’t take the bait. He says the point is he also criticized Rumsfeld’s handling of the war long BEFORE the surge. and, in fact, McCain does usually couple his citation of the success of the surge with his assertion that he was only GOP candidate who spoke out against the handling of the war prior to the troop increase.
9:53 pm: Quick series of exchanges by Fred Thompson. His supporters again see what might have been (and what could still be if lightning strikes in South Carolina).
9:51 pm: McCain has enough of a bounce in his step to be relishing an Iraq debate with Ron Paul, regardless of the sentiments inside the debate hall.
9:50 pm: From ABC’s Jan Simmonds, who covers the Giuliani campaign: "A rare swipe back at John McCain by Rudy Giuliani. He rarely mentions the names of his fellow republicans unless they attack him first."
9:48 pm: This may be as close as Giuliani gets to criticizing McCain: "John, there were other people on this stage that supported the surge."
9:43 pm: At this point, beating up on Paul on stage is like arm-wrestling your mother: Yes, you’re going to win, but you should feel a little bad while you’re winning.
9:42 pm: Brit Hume is right to step in and say Ron Paul was out of line by saying his opponents were starting WW III. And Ron Paul just acknowledged that he didn’t hear what his opponents were saying. OK, Paulites, spin this one.
9:40 pm: McCain has the same punt as Huckabee on the question of what he would have done if the ships approached his ships. Does anyone say, fire the weapons?
9:38 pm: From ABC’s Karen Travers: "These guys are Obsessed with the gates of hell. When Huckabee sends them all there, will they find McCain engaging in fisticuffs with bin Laden?
9:37 pm: Fred Thompson is talking about virgins, and then he’s getting "frisky" — this is getting good. And this from ABC’s Kevin Chupka: "You can thank Colbert for that one — he used the line last night in their interview and I think the Huckster may have just stolen it."
9:35 pm: For all this tough talk about facing the gates of hell, Huckabee sort of punted on this question about engagement with Iranian ships. The substance of his answer was that the president knows best, and the commanders must have done the right thing because they’re commanders, if I understand this right.
9:33 pm: Good placement and good ad from Rudy during the break. Him cutting taxes — delivering more tax cuts than all the candidates combined.
9:32 pm: It sounds like Ron Paul has some supporters in the house tonight…
9:29 pm: ABC’s Karen Travers noticed Huckabee winking at Fox’s Carl Cameron. Southern charm, Travers says.
9:29 pm: Rudy hasn’t made the 50-state argument in a while. Maybe he can run well in New Jersey, but I think it’s now clear he can’t run well in Iowa and New Hampshire.
9:26 pm: The Giuliani campaign just sent along a picture of a very young Rudy, with a full head of hair and a grey three-piece suit, shaking hands with Ronald Reagan. (For some reason, military aides are milling around in the background, meaning it’s one of those assembly-line photos.)
9:24 pm: I think this is the first time Fred Thompson has attacked Mike Huckabee. Calling him a liberal — and then emptying the whole folder of oppo-research. Maybe he is serious about giving this a shot, after all. "That’s the model of the Democratic Party," says Thompson — an early sound bite.
9:23 pm: So we officially have Optimistic Mitt tonight. This happens to be Mitt at his best. But is this the message that will work in Michigan, five days from now?
9:21 pm: From ABC’s Kevin Chupka: 2nd amendment, life, marriage — Toto, we ain’t in Manchester anymore.
9:21 pm: From ABC’s Ron Claiborne: Right off the top, Sen McCain rebutted Mitt Romney’s attempt to score him for saying some lost jobs in Michigan aren’t ever coming back … Romney said "I disagree." McCain said he was dispensing more of his trademark "straight talk" by reiterating that "some jobs aren"t coming back" to Michigan or South Carolina. What he didn’t mention is his proposal for the government to make up the difference between an older worker’s former salary and what they make at a lower paying job that they take after losing their job. He mentioned this plan — broadly — at campaign events in Michigan Wednesday. He mentioned it again today in Greenville, SC, even prefacing it by saying "I’m no liberal but …" But when asked about the plan after the event, he declined to elaborate …. What he is talking about is a very unusual concept for a conservative — government payments to working people who take a salary cut when he lose their higher-paying job. He seems to have realized that bringing this up in the debate would have opened himself up to attack from Romney and maybe others.
9:19 pm: Huckabee does not seem comfortable disavowing Ronald Reagan — not a surprise, why would he? But he used the answer to turn to a solid conservative answer. And then he does talk to the people who are struggling.
9:16 pm: The candidates, broadly, don’t seem like they want to feel anybody’s pain regarding the economy. Will tax cuts revive Michigan’s economy?
9:12 pm: Rudy Giuliani is in the weeds talking about "anti-competitive" tax cuts. It seems like he has a bold idea to pin his candidacy on now with this larges tax cut in the history of the universe, but he should be talking more broadly about that — no?
9:11 pm: Is it me, or was Mike Huckabee funnier when he was in the second tier?
9:09 pm: I, for one, am glad that John McCain will never be "Miss Congeniality." That would be weird.
9:09 pm: From ABC’s Matt Stuart: What state is this debate in again? The first five minutes we’ve already heard about Michigan twice.
9:06 pm: McCain decides to deliver "straight talk" instead of smacking Romney back. That’s almost more of an insult.
9:05 pm: Ahh, the R-word. "Could we be headed for a recession? Absolutely. Do we have to be headed for a recession? Absolutely not." Good answer by Mitt Romney. Michigan is his ballgame, of course, and Mike Huckabee’s populism is a serious, serious threat. And whoa — what a hit on John McCain. Check out that smirk on McCain’s face. Mitt knows he has about zero chances left.
9:02 pm: Lots of wedding dresses on stage tonight. . . . Think they’re loading the deck against any candidate in particular?
9:01 pm: South Carolina has an "official country music ambassador"? What are the ambassadorial duties?
8:56 pm ET: A friend offers up a precious image: Since Rudy’s not playing in South Carolina — what if he showed up in Bermuda shorts tonight? Maybe brought a copy of the Miami Herald with him for when he gets bored. . . . I jest, of course. But the NBA playoffs are spaced out more than this. Given that, how can any of these guys really break through?
Rick Klein from ABC’s The Note here. I’ll be online starting at 9 pm ET for Thursday night’s Republican debate on Fox News, being held in Myrtle Beach, S.C. After a blur of a week, the weary GOP candidates convene one last time before the next batch of primaries, starting with Michigan’s vote next Tuesday. Last chance for Mitt Romney to get back in the game, and John McCain’s now your GOP frontrunner. Be part of the conversation in the comments section below . . . What are you looking for tonight?