GOP Logjam in Michigan

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I've been catching up on the GOP debate. Thank God for TiVo. After a half dozen of these, I just can't stomach any more of the Tancredo, Hunter, Brownback triumverate. *Bub-boop!*

Tonight, of course, marked the first debate for Fred Thompson. He fit right in. Which is hardly a complement. He was shaky with his talking points — visibly straining to remember the script about "Islamic fascism". He looked vaguely dyspeptic when he was speaking, and more or less catatonic when it wasn't his turn. The top lighting gave the bags under his eyes an uncanny resemblance to steamer trunks. He looked older than McCain if you can imagine that.

His height helps him — is he really Yao-Ming sized or are the rest of these guys midgets? And the easy folksiness of lines like "we're eating our seed corn" in his answer on the future of Medicare and Social Security probably plays with a certain kind of Bush voter.

When it comes down to it, these debates are all about gotcha moments — think: Rudy dressing down Ron Paul earlier in the season — video nuggets that get amplified and replayed in the mainstream media. Fred didn't have any of those moments, good or bad. So his debut was probably 'good enough' in his pursuit of government work.

Mitt Romney seemed a changed man tonight. Perhaps it was the CNBC/WallStreetJournal sponsorship of the debate, but he projected himself as a zealous, sunny business wonk. He looked sharp and tan and was unusually un-scary about Iran. It seemed clear he'd rather talk than fight with Tehran — as opposed to Rudy whose unbridled enthusiasm for the "military option" made me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

I get the feeling that if you peel back the oniony layers of opportunism, this is actually who Mitt Romney is. A northern Republican with a hard on for capital gains. And if you're a Democrat rooting for the least-worst option to emerge from the Republican field, Romney may just be your guy.

That Mike Huckabee hasn't caught just a little bit of fire is a mystery to me. He's charming and funny, and always seems reasonable even when he's preaching to the freepers. I don't know why the James Dobsons of the world are threatening to leave the party rather than throwing their weight behind this Southern Baptist minister with a concealed-carry permit and a "covenant marriage." Someone whose phone calls Focus on the Family actually returns ought to ask Dr. D. just that.

Ron Paul continues to be the most effective antiwar voice on either side of the aisle. His presence on stage at least lets these guys mix it up a little bit. The debate starts to live up to its name in moments like Paul blasting Romney as a constitutional ignoramus for saying he'd have to consult his lawyers to see whether the president needs congressional authorization to bomb Iran.

Speaking of bombing Iran, there was Rudy, delighting again in the possibility. That is, when he wasn't invoking the menacing tax-and-spend specter of "Hillary Clinton." I'd have to check the transcript to be sure, but I think he invoked her more than 9/11 tonight. Which is saying something.

It's remarkable how much the GOP looks like a party in disarray up there on stage. It's no longer clear what the party stands for. What does "strong on defense" mean in these late, tragic days of the Iraq war. Fiscal restraint? Cue: laugh track. Family values? When the front runner is Rudy G?!

There are divisions on immigration, free trade, global warming. But the one force that seems to give the GOP meaning these days is... opposition to Hillary Clinton.

Sick and wrong? Sure. But very real nonetheless.