In last debate, rivals, format let Huckabee off the hook

Despite the hype and anticipation, the last Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses and the first since former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee surged to the lead was a rather ho-hum affair.

The Des Moines Register’s format, combined with a distracting appearance by Alan Keyes and the field’s apparent decision to play nice, amounted to a pass for Huckabee, who was expected to endure his toughest outing yet.

From the outset, moderator and Register Editor Carolyn Washburn said the candidates would not be asked about Iraq or immigration, two of the hottest issues throughout the year. Instead, the candidates were largely free to repeat what have by now become standard stump lines on issues ranging from education to the national debt.

Huckabee especially enjoyed an afternoon in which he was never really tested, leaving him free to talk about his humble beginnings and the need to heal a divided country.

“We’ve got to be the united people of the United States,” Huckabee said.

When given rare but real chances to hit the new front-runner, both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) did not take their shots.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) attempted to put Huckabee on the spot about his record on immigration as governor, but was cut off by Washburn, who moved to Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) to ask him about what he would prescribe for one of his opponents as a New Year’s resolution.

Keyes lobbed several attacks at both Washburn and the rest of the field, but he was mostly laughed off by the other candidates.

In an interview with Fox News Channel after the debate, Huckabee, when asked for his thoughts on Washburn’s moderating performance, conceded that he got off relatively easily.

“Well, I think she handled it overall fine. I was kind of looking for a little bit more interaction with the candidates, perhaps a little bit more liveliness,” Huckabee said. “Frankly, given all the liveliness I've been through the last few days, it was kind of nice to walk away ... with all my blood still in my body.”

In post-debate spin statements from the campaigns, most took the standard approach of declaring that their candidate was the one who distinguished himself. But Thompson’s campaign, following the former senator’s lead, directly criticized the format, Huckabee and the rest of the field with one shot.

“I am not sure how these other candidates plan to defeat al Qaeda when they can’t even take on Carolyn Washburn,” Thompson spokesman Todd Harris said in a statement. “The format of this debate was more of a joke than a Mike Huckabee foreign policy answer.”

Thompson at one point came close to leading a mutiny against Washburn after she asked the candidates to respond to a question by a show of hands.

“I’m not doing hand shows today,” Thompson said. When asked to follow up, Thompson asked if he could have a full minute to answer the question on climate change.

After Washburn told him no, Thompson said: “Well, then I’m not going to answer it.”