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GOP's Last Iowa Debate: All Aboard the Crazy Train

Watching the debate, I kept wondering whether Alan Keyes should be institutionalized.
 
 
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Yesterday's debate for Republican presidential hopefuls is, thank goodness, the final debate before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. However, with 22 days between the event and the results of the fist contest, this was the last chance for candidates to hammer their rivals, undermine the frontrunners, and draw "distinctions" with the rest of the field. I almost wondered if actual blood would be shed on the stage.

But it was not to be. Yesterday's event might as well be labeled the Hippocratic Debate: As in, "First, do no harm."

The GOP field seemed far more interested in getting through the last debate without screwing up than scoring points at their opponents' behest. The event's host seemed anxious to play along, going out of their way to make this the single dullest, substance-less, inconsequential debate of either side this year. When the audience learned early on that the debate would include Alan Keyes, but not include questions on Iraq and immigration, we knew this would be a long 90 minutes.

How bad was it? The biggest news of the event came after it was over, when Mike Huckabee talked to CNN from the spin room.

The Arkansan said he apologized to Romney right after the debate for a quote that will appear in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine in which he wondered out loud if Mormons believe Jesus and the Devil are brothers.

"I've stayed away from talking about Mitt Romney's faith," Huckabee told Wolf Blitzer. "And I told him face to face, I said, 'I don't think your being a Mormon ought to make you more or less qualified for being a president.'"

Huckabee, who has ridden a wave of positive media attention until a dose of scrutiny that has come with his rise, added that he is "being much more cautious now, because everything is being parsed."

At least we know what it takes to get Huckabee to apologize. He won't back down on quarantining AIDS patients, and he won't apologize for urging women to be submissive to their husbands, but he will apologize to Romney for taking a cheap shot at his religion. Good to know.

Of course, this is not to say that the Iowa debate was completely devoid of noteworthy developments.

Observations from my notes:

* Asked whether Americans should be asked to sacrifice to help pay down our debts, the candidates apparently agreed we should not. How generous.

* Fred Thompson easily had his best performance as a presidential candidate yesterday, including this mini-revolt against one of those silly hand-raising questions.

WASHBURN: Thank you. I want to take on a new issue. I would like to see a show of hands. How many of you believe global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity?

THOMPSON: Well, do you want to give me a minute to answer that?

WASHBURN: No, I don't. I -

THOMPSON: Well, then I'm not going to answer it. (Laughter, applause.)

Haven't debate organizers learned by now that this is a foolish way to ask questions in a debate?

Steve Benen is a freelance writer/researcher and creator of The Carpetbagger Report. In addition, he is the lead editor of Salon.com's Blog Report, and has been a contributor to Talking Points Memo, Washington Monthly, Crooks & Liars, The American Prospect, and the Guardian.