Mike Huckabee Graduates

During each debate the 2008 top-tier candidates are given another chance to convince conservatives they aren’t so moderate. But these early debates are equally as important for the second-tier contenders who have a unique opportunity for a breakthrough moment — to graduate to a new rank in the race. So who left South Carolina marching to Pomp and Circumstance?

Last night’s debate was big for one second-tier candidate alone. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee might be hearing his campaign slogan “I like Mike” more often after his confident responses and most memorably — his humor. "We’ve had a Congress that’s spending money like John Edwards at a beauty shop," said Huckabee. His joke opened up the debate, and reminded each candidate that they were no longer on MSNBC.

It seemed that even the moderators where asking Huckabee top-tier questions. Unruffled he responding to tough questions about tax increases in Arkansas and clemency decisions. “Well it’s a form a flattery to be attacked” said Huckabee when responding to a question about “slams” on his tax increases. “The truth is I cut taxes 94 times when I was governor…I don’t apologize for being a Republican governor in a very Democrat state and getting 94 different tax decreases — the first ever in my state’s history done.”

Refering to Gov. Gilmore’s nickname for top-tier candidates “Rudy McRomney,” Huckabee joked, “I wish my name could get into the moniker Gilmore is putting out there — I could use the bump,” once again pulling in chuckles from the audience.

Surprisingly in early text message polls on a FOX NEWS post debate special “Hannity and Colmes,” Ron Paul came in first with 30% of the vote. These results generated a resounding “huh?” among conservatives. Will Paul become the "Sanjaya" of the candidates?

Not only did Paul get little face time, but the only response that gained any momentum — was momentum for his opponent, Rudy Giuliani. Paul suggested that the U.S. bombing of Iraq encouraged the September 11 attacks, providing a perfect opportunity for Giuliani to put Paul in his place.

"Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we’ve been over there. We’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years," Paul said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11," interrupted Giuliani, who then demanded Paul withdraw his statement.

Tommy Thompson’s answers are articulate yet his personality is still lacking. Tancredo, Brownback, Hunter and Gilmore did little to stand out. Of the second-tier candidates Huckabee was the clear leader.