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A Flat Finale in Iowa

It could have been the best debate of the campaign. With just three weeks to go before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and the race in turmoil, the eight GOP presidential hopefuls, plus a strange guest star named Alan Keyes, faced off for the final time in Iowa Wednesday, in what for some candidates will be the last major opportunity to make an impression before the balloting begins.

It's been a long time coming. Eleven times so far in this campaign—or it is 12 or 13? We lost track long ago—these candidates have gathered to scrap for the spotlight. What made this debate different, at least on paper, was that the finish line in what has sometimes felt like the longest presidential campaign in history is finally in sight. The questions might, at long last, matter.

Mike Huckabee, now atop the Iowa polls and starting to give Rudy Giuliani a run for his money nationally, hadn't faced the tough questioning his rivals had in previous debates. What would he say differently, if anything, under cross-examination from the competition—on the war, immigration and religion? Would Rudy Giuliani, who has been very nice to Huckabee (in part because he was regarded as a longshot, at best), take aim at the former Arkansas governor's perceived weakness on foreign policy? Would Mitt Romney bring up Huckabee's recent comments on Mormonism? (In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, Huckabee reportedly asked, "Don't Mormons believe Jesus and the devil are brothers?"—a comment he says he apologized to Romney for, in person, right after the debate.) And how would the rest of the field use this precious last bit of free air time to further their hopes of winning, placing or showing at the caucuses next month?

Just because the stakes were high doesn't mean the show was compelling. For starters, the format was limited. There were no follow-ups, and the moderator announced early on that there would be few questions about the war and immigration—two of the hottest issues in Iowa. And the candidates eschewed conflict in favor of trying to play nice—perhaps mindful of Iowa voters' legendary distaste for attack dogs.

The result: a debate that was just about as exciting as flat Coke. No fizz—unless you count the tension between Fred Thompson and the moderator over Thompson's refusal to participate in a round of questioning in which he was asked to raise his hand to signal a yes or no answer. "You want a show of hands? I'm not giving it to you," Thompson snapped. Strangely, it was one of the few times the usually staid Thompson has come across as excited in any debate since he joined the race. (We won't even mention the hissy fit Keyes threw about getting equal time except to say this: why was that guy even there?)

Huckabee, who drew favorable reviews for his debate performances even during his early days in the cellar, entered today's debate the front runner; nothing that happened over the two hours threatened his lead. He gave eloquent answers on education, which unquestionably is one of his biggest strengths. There could have been fireworks over his pitch to expand funding for arts and music programs at school; after all, the GOP is in crisis over how the party has strayed from its fiscally conservative principles. But none of his major rivals went there.

Romney took a mild shot at Huckabee, saying he disagreed with Huckabee's boast that he had "the most impressive education record." "I don't believe you had the finest record … because there's another one on the stand," Romney said, talking up his own résumé. Oh snap? Yeah, don't think so.

Thompson, whose campaign has been flooding reporters' in-boxes with e-mails attacking Huckabee on immigration and spending, missed a chance to score points with the GOP base by bringing up Huckabee's ties to teachers' unions back in Arkansas. The National Education Association, Thompson said, was "the biggest obstacle" to improving public education. (Memo to Thompson: if you want to stay in the game, maybe blame the governor?) It fell to Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado to make the point the fiscal hawks were dying to hear about arts education: "That's not the job of a president," said Tancredo, a former Education Department official in the Reagan White House who is languishing in the polls. "It's the job of a governor. That's what you should run for if you want to dictate curriculum."

Meanwhile, where was Giuliani? The national front runner was hardly heard from during the debate—perhaps reflecting the fact that he's not competing seriously in Iowa. His most notable moment of the afternoon came when he was asked about security expenses incurred during trips to see his then-girlfriend when he was mayor of New York that were spread out—and obscured—among different city agencies. Asked what he would do to make sure a Giuliani White House was "open with information," the former mayor argued his life, and his career, had been an open book. "My government in New York City was so transparent that they knew almost everything I did when I did it," Giuliani said. "I haven't had a perfect life. I wish I had, and I do the best I can to learn from my mistakes."

There has been much criticism about the debates this year. Some say there have been too many. Others have complain about over-the-top productions and showboating moderators. Today's event seemed geared toward avoiding the gotcha moments that candidates just don't like. It's a noble goal. But if Wednesday's event shows anything, it's that defanging political discourse leaves a lot of people on stage gumming each other. The ultimate goal is to learn something new or telling about the candidates—something voters don't get from a TV ad or a stump speech. Unfortunately, that didn't happen in Iowa Wednesday afternoon.

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