The clear winner of Thursday night's debate at Ronald Reagan library was the Republican party. Having been driven from their majorities in Congress, taken losses in state houses and governors mansions across the country, watched poll numbers for Democrats continue to rise while their own president remains as unpopular as none since Richard Nixon during Watergate, many a sane Republican is disappointed in the current field and expects the party to lose the White House in 2008.

But the Republican debate was not only far more interesting than the Democratic version last week, the collective line up was more impressive. The third and fourth tier candidates who hardly register in polls were not sideshows or distractions, but were central players throughout the debate. The atmosphere, even at its most confrontational moments -- and there were several -- was friendly and the ten opponents seemed a team. No one was mean, no one was stumped or panicked in response to many surprising and tough questions, and as a line up they came across as far more experienced than the collection of Democratic contenders in their debate. The four former governors -- James Gilmore of Virginia, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin -- all shined but Reps. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), Ron Paul (Texas), and Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (Kansas) also spoke knowledgeably about numerous issues from terrorism to the Iraq war to immigration to taxes.

McCain was nervous, forcing out his fake and fearful smile at all the wrong moments and even flubbing an important line about Republicans losing in 2006 because they put principle before power, but Guiliani and Romney were relaxed and ready. Guiliani was particularly smooth and was blessed with beginners luck when he got the first question about how to restore Ronald Reagan's Morning in America. Guiliani talked about leading from strength and optimism and delivered it so evenly and optimistically it was hard to believe it was Rudy. He had to thread a difficult needle on abortion but managed it. He deserves huge credit for not indulging in gratuitous 911 references but speaking about his record on crime, taxes, adoption, welfare reform and the economy in New York City. Finally, he was asked the jarring pop-quiz type question about the difference between a sunni and shitte that makes debates so perilous and can destroy a canidacy in an instant but it was a test he certainly passed.
It should be mentioned that while he surely did not win, President Bush got a huge break tonight. The How-Would-You-Be-Different-Than-Bush question came in the last of 90 minutes and everyone went easy on him.