GOP Debate: Playing It Safe

Here's NEWSWEEK'S Holly Bailey from Boca Raton with a report on last night's Republican snoozefest... or, um, "debate":

Maybe Fred Thompson should have stayed in after all. His droll one-liners might have enlivened what was one of the flattest performances yet from a group of GOPcandidates who have done battle on the debate stage 18 times before. Familiarity is breeding contempt-not among the combatants, but perhaps among members of the viewing audience.

As the Democratic field has narrowed to a two-candidate contest, the back-and-forth has grown more intense, as evidenced by the sharp sticks Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama poked in each others' eyes last Monday, during a Martin Luther King Day smackdown in South Carolina. But the GOP field has remained a bit more fluid. Florida's crucial Republican primary looms on Jan. 29-a vote which may well determine whether Rudy Giuliani can stay in the race, whether John McCain builds on his past victories to establish a serious head of steam heading into Super Tuesday, whether Mitt Romney can muster Southern appeal, and whether Mike Huckabeehas a prayer. But instead of taking sharp aim at one another, the leading Republican candidates seemed more interested in getting their licks in against Clinton, too.

If you somehow missed the first 75 minutes of the debate, broadcast on MSNBC from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., thank your lucky stars. Did anyone try to stand out? Not really. In spite of an attempt at serious questions about what to do about the struggling economy, the candidates stuck to their usual talking points, extolling the virtues of tax cuts, endorsing stimulus plans and cutting spending. Giuliani talked up his time as mayor of New York City, again; in a guaranteed applause line, McCain trashed the Bridge to Nowhere-four times to be exact. It felt like the film Groundhog Day-except for the few mentions of Florida-centric issues like the National Catastrophic Fund, which Giuliani supports and the other candidates are slightly iffy on. (Guess what's going to be the top story in Friday's Florida papers?)

The most exciting moment in the first half hour? A shot of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist sitting in the audience. On TV, he was so tan he looked like an Oompa Loompa.

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