A couple of quick thoughts about tonight's debate:

1.) You'd probably expect it from a notorious Romney symp, but I thought the former Massachusetts governor had a very strong night. He was sharp out of the gate with a fluent answer about the recent stimulus compromise, solid again on Social Security, extremely well-informed in response to a gotcha question from Rudy Giuliani about federal hurricane insurance. He had some funny (in a partisan way), well-delivered zingers about how he might run against Bill and Hillary Clinton ("the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I just can't imagine the American people [want])" and how he credits General Patraeus with our recent success in Iraq, "not General Hillary Clinton." And he landed a sly jab at McCain when he noted how easy it is to complain about the "bridge to nowhere," but how the real challenge is to take on entitlements. It made Romney sound mature and serious, and exposed McCain's tired claim that the GOP lost Congress because of runaway pork-barrel spending.

2.) For the first several months of this campaign, it was Romney who looked like a flip-flopping, shifty-eyed phony and McCain who sounded like a straight-talker. Now that the topic du jour is the economy, the roles have reversed. It's Romney who sounds authentic and believable and McCain who's transparently full of it. McCain would have us believe that the only reason he opposed the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 is that the GOP wasn't yet serious about spending. But he now supports making the Bush tax cuts permanent because.... well, because why again? Is he arguing that spending is now substantially under control? I don't buy it for a second. Nor, like Romney, do I buy his goofy explanation for why Republicans lost Congress in 2006. All of the available polling suggests they lost over Iraq and the various GOP scandals, not because voters thought spending was out of control. (I wrote a piece about this at the time, but of course it's going to be virtually impossible to exhume from our non-existant archives.)

For what it's worth, I think McCain's heart was in his 2001 and 2003 votes, and not in his current position. But maybe Republican voters will come to a different conclusion.

3.) I don't see Huckabee getting very far in Florida--or, for that matter, many other places--from here on out. But it was interesting to see him finally put some meat on the bones of his inchoate populist/nationalist impulses. He had a very interesting and, to many viewers I suspect, compelling response to a question about the stimulus plan, saying it would probably just amount to us borrowing $150 billion from the Chinese, which consumers would then use to buy Chinese products. "I have to wonder whose economy is going to be stimulated the most by the package," he quipped. Huckabee then unveiled a stimulus plan built around upgrading the highway that runs from Maine to Florida. He claimed that a similar $1 billion highway expansion effort helped pull Arkansas out of recession when he was governor by creating 40,000 jobs. I suspect it's too little, too late. But it's encouraging to hear him finally unveil a substantively, rather than just rhetorically, populist agenda.

(Having said that, I wouldn't minimize the power of Hucks' rhetoric. His line about how recessions often trickle up, as opposed to the standard Republican view of prosperity trickling down, was very winning and apt.)

4.) I got the sense Rudy was subtly signaling tonight that he knows it's over for him. He basically punted when given the opportunity to attack Romney and McCain. And when asked why his campaign was in such lousy shape after leading for so long, he gave an almost poignantly (for Rudy anyway) half-hearted response about how he's lulled the field into a "very false sense of security," and how "we're going to come from behind" just like the New York Giants lately.

5.) Finally, what was with all of the thievery of Barack Obama tonight? Mitt Romney filched Obama's line about how sending the same people back to Washington over and over while expecting a different result is delusional. Romney also channeled Obama when he said he didn't believe people in this country were going to base their vote on something as irrelevant as the church someone attends. (Obama usually talks about this in the context of race.) Then, later, when Huckabee was pressed on the complete improbability of his flat-tax becoming law, he lectured Tim Russert about how everyone is always talking about what we can't do, while he wants to focus on what we can do. It was a line Obama used about energy policy a few months back.

P.S. Also, what was up with Tim Russert--Tim Russert!--when John McCain denied saying something that Russert had quoted him as saying? Russert didn't even call him on it! If Tim Russert's not going to call you on an inconsistency or a niggling inaccuracy, what good is he?  

*No transcript yet. As usual, my notes may be a little shaky. I'll update when I get it.

Update: Quotes should now be accurate.

--Noam Scheiber