I watched the Republican presidential debate tonight at Dearborn, Michigan. The subject was limited to economics. The debate had actually been held several hours earlier and MSNBC broadcast it on tape delay. Before it aired, however, the network undercut their own exclusive by having Chris Matthews, who hosted the debate, show film clips on Hardball, along with discussion by commentators. This is the first time I ever recall being exposed to preemptive spin, with discussions about who won the debate taking place before any viewer had seen it. I resented being denied the opportunity to make up my own mind.

I thought that there was a wide gap between the first tier–Giuliani and Romney–and everybody else. Giuliani does not come across as likable on TV (and, I suspect, in person). Even on television, you feel as if he is boring in on you, invading your personal space. And that smug look on his face! It makes the Bush smirk look like a sober reflection. The notable thing about Giuliani is that every answer is competent and fluent. He radiates forcefulness. He and Romney got into a couple of tussles. The first was over which one had been the greater tax-cutter. Giuliani said he had cut taxes 23 times as mayor of New York. I’d love to see the documentation on that number. Romney didn’t believe it and neither did I. Then Romney accused him of going to the U.S. Supreme Court to bust a law giving the president authority to make line item vetoes, which is viewed by fiscal conservatives as a vital tool for reining in federal spending. Giuliani responded by saying that he had defeated Bill Clinton. That’s C-L-I-N-T-O-N. Clinton. Clinton. Yes, Rudy, we get it, you can beat Clinton. Romney walked right into that punch. Otherwise, Romney gave the best answers, as should be expected, since economics is his intellectual home turf.

The suspense was how well Fred Thompson would do in his first debate appearance. Matthews tried to trap him by mentioning that the debate was taking place very close to Canada, a leading trading partner of the United States, and, by the way, who is the prime minister of Canada? “Harper,” Thompson answered at once. Game to Mr. Thompson. On economic issues, Thompson’s answers were predictable and without passion; he seemed to be playing not to make a mistake. I don’t think it got him anywhere to play not to lose. He did draw laughter from the crowd when he made wisecracks about deciding to debate because the other candidates seemed to miss him.

Poor John McCain. Maybe he has just gotten old. (Thompson didn’t look like any spring chicken either.) He just seemed lifeless, even when he talked about things that he has been identified with, such as opposition to pork barrel spending and the need for straight talk.

There was a significant gap between the Giuliani-Romney first tier and the Thompson-McCain second tier.

The only other candidate worth mentioning was Mike Huckabee. Something about his style is just right for television. He’s relaxed and straightforward. His just-folks act seems much more natural than Thompson’s.

The candidates didn’t find a lot to disagree about. Although the subject was economics, national security kept finding its way into the debate. Candidate after candidate spoke about “people who want to kill us,” about “Islamic fascism,” about the threat posed by Iran. Ah, that reminds me. I thought Thompson’s best answer came on a question that was addressed to all of the candidates: whether a president should seek approval from Congress before making a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Most candidates answered that a president has to act to defend the country if he believes that hostile action is imminent. Thompson said that it is always a good idea to go to Congress, that it is important for the American people to support the decision. (I’m not sure I’ve done full justice to his answer.)

If anything is certain about the Republican field, it is that all of them (except Ron Paul, who railed against the war, as always, and drew applause, as always) believe that national security is the most important issue.

I wrote a month or so ago that I thought Giuliani would be the Republican nominee. A lot of people disagreed with that call, but I saw nothing tonight to make me change my mind.