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In GOP Race, Game On

By Reid Wilson

ORLANDO, FL -- While some Fox News employees worried their debate would be overshadowed by the Major League Baseball playoffs, those who did tune into the event, from Orlando Sunday evening, saw the gloves come off more dramatically than any previous meeting of the GOP candidates.

After weeks of rising rhetoric, Republicans used the fifth of their presidential debates to criticize their opponents directly, bringing the first direct clashes between top-tier candidates. With just over seventy days to go before the first presidential nominating contests, no front-runner was safe, and unlike previous debates, no candidate declined to take shots either.

Asked who was more conservative, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson became the first front-running candidate to enumerate his disagreements with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani, Thompson charged, supported federal funding for abortion, sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants and Mario Cuomo for governor, and opposed tax cuts. "I simply disagree with him on those issues," Thompson said. "And he sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues I just mentioned."

Romney also took flak from Senator John McCain, who has long criticized various positions the former governor took. "Governor Romney, you've been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record," he charged. Earlier, he took on Romney and Giuliani: "I wasn't a mayor for a short period of time. I wasn't a governor for a short period of time," he said. "I didn't manage for profit. I led for patriotism."

After a first round of fireworks, though, the debate cooled off and Republicans turned their attention to issues that are pure red meat for the GOP electorate. At least some candidates were relieved. "I'm kind of glad I wasn't in on the first few minutes, because it was all about these guys fighting each other," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Candidates instead turned their fire toward Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. "The idea that someone wants to be president that's never worked in the private sector, is really a question mark," Romney said. "With all the fun we're going to have with it, there's nothing funny about Hillary Clinton being president," Huckabee said.

Each candidate won loud applause, though McCain got the best crowd reaction. McCain criticized Clinton's proposed earmarking of $1 million for a Woodstock museum. "I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time," he said, to the evening's only standing ovation. "But the fact is no one can be president of the United States that supports projects such as these."

At the end of the evening, several candidates stood out for their performances. Thompson, in his second debate appearance, improved dramatically from a less than stellar debut. In command of his facts, willing to jump into the mix to challenge other candidates, Thompson showed some of the fire in the belly many had questioned whether he possessed at all.

That Thompson, dogged in recent weeks by charges of laziness, entered into the fray was unsurprising, campaign strategists said. "He was accused of looking like he was in a tennis match watching," said advisor Rich Galen. Thompson, Galen said, planned to take an opportunity, should one have presented itself, to distinguish his record from those of other candidates.

"The best way for us to get votes is to have a good issues comparison," Thompson pollster John McLaughlin said. McLaughlin pointed to events all week, including keynoting the New York State Conservative Party's dinner in Giuliani's back yard.

Huckabee again stole a large portion of the show. A focus group conducted by prominent Republican pollster Frank Luntz showed many called the Arkansan the surprise, adding to an already big week for his campaign. Earlier, Huckabee won a straw poll of attendees to the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit, in Washington, with more than half the votes. Romney, by comparison, finished second with just ten percent.

"I'm competing against guys who are spending tens of millions of dollars and I'm neck and neck with them," Huckabee told Fox News in a post-debate interview.

Romney and Giuliani, seen largely as front-runners, spent much of the debate deflecting attentions from other candidates. Giuliani, who leads by 7.2 points in the latest RCP Florida Average, considers Florida a bulwark where the campaign can stop any momentum generated by early wins for other candidates.

In what many consider Giuliani's default back yard, other candidates took pains to undermine his support. Giuliani never seemed to lose his humor, even when Thompson accused him of siding with Clinton. Like Clinton, whose campaign advisors made it clear early that she would fight back against any attacks, Giuliani will not let volleys go unanswered. "If there's one thing you know about Rudy Giuliani, he does not back down," said former Congresswoman Susan Moliarni, who is backing the mayor.

Romney, saddled with the albatross of Massachusetts, a word that conjures virtually as much vitriol in the GOP lexicon as a comparison to Clinton, defended his record in the state, asserting big differences between his health care plan and Clinton's and winning applause for his position in favor of a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Perhaps the only victim in Orlando was the 11th Commandment. With just weeks to go before Iowa voters caucus, tonight's first direct confrontations show the Republican race will only get more heated. Summarized Thompson advisor Galen: "The game's now on."

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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