Well, that was a letdown. The debate had a stiff and stilted quality with almost no interplay between the candidates. Romney and Huckabee had no significant exchanges that I can remember, and I heard virtually nothing new. Huckabee did seem to be handling his new fame and success well, however--I thought he was generally poised and articulate. In that sense, and given that no one took a real chunk out of him, I say it was a good day for Huckabee that doesn't reverse the narrative of his rapid ascent.

And there were some minor bummers for Mitt Romey. He took repeated micro-shots from the bottom-rung candidates, occasionally in oddball fashion. The hapless Duncan Hunter, for instance, blurted a strange and convoluted charge that Romney's former firm, Bain Capital, is in league with sinister Chinese businessmen to (if I got this right) buy up US defense firms. The implication was that Romney--though he has no connection to Bain anymore--has something to be embarassed about here. (Romney didn't even bother to respond.) Alan Keyes, who put on a typically absurd and pompous performance in his public '08 debut, taunted Romney for flip-flopping on abortion. Tom Tancredo zinged Romney for allegedly being a phony immigration hawk. Even sad-sack Fred Thompson scored points at Romney's expense. At one point Romney said he wasn't terribly worried about whether the rich pay excessive taxes (something sure to be noted at Club for Growth headquarters). In response, Thompson joked that he envies Mitt for being rich enough himself not to have such worries. Romney offered an ineffectual retort about Thompson's acting career, leading Fred to observe that Mitt is "getting to be a pretty good actor" himself--a crowd-pleaser that left Romney stammering.

None of these details will matter much come January 3. And when he was speaking on his own, as Ambinder argues, Mitt was lucid and polished. But overall, the flagging Romney surely wanted a better day than this.

Footnote: Romney never unloaded on Huckabee in the debate. But almost literally the moment it ended, his campaign mass emailed a tough backgrounder on Huckabee's education record, listing several categories in which Massachusetts far outranked Arkansas in school performance. (Of course, in 1992 George H.W. Bush spent a lot of time ridiculing Arkansas as a stunted backwater with lousy schools, and that never quite stuck.)

Update: Fascinating tidbit from Halperin: Huckabee approached Romney just after the debate and apologized for his recent comments about Mormonism.

More: As usual, the focus groups saw things differently than I did--Isaac says the Fox group loved Mitt.

--Michael Crowley