After the first third of the Fox debate drew to a close, my quick-and-dirty conclusion was that John McCain and Mike Huckabee had done nothing to jeopardize their position at the top of the Republican pack. Though it must be said that Fred Thompson's line about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard coming within an instant of "meeting those virgins" is a reminder that he was the candidate who had the capacity to make a breakthrough (unlikely at this late date) if he had only had woken up earlier. And, of course, Ron Paul deserves a tip of the hat for suggesting that the Navy came within a hairbreadth of going to war against speed boats.
But the big conclusion from this debate is aesthetic. Patriotism is the last refuge of the desperate. The only candidates wearing American flag pins are those who have so far been big losers and may not be around for the next GOP debate in California -- Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani. Rudy, by the way, is off his game, since he actually answered a few economic policy questions without invoking 9/11.
Consider these very temporary verdicts: My "Roadies" colleague Mike Madden will be offering a comprehensive assessment once the debate is over.
Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.