St. Petersburg, Fla. — Wednesday’s CNN-YouTube presidential debate afforded me the unique opportunity to watch a former fat man throw his weight around and overwhelm his debate rivals, and then to watch an even bigger fat man come close to creating a security disaster right after the debate.
First, kudos to my colleagues at CNN. They put together the liveliest debate yet in the GOP presidential race. That a former general proclaimed himself gay, quizzed the candidates on military policy and gays, and then turned out to be a Hillary Clinton supporter didn’t, in my view, pollute the integrity of the proceedings. Too much else went right.
Of much greater significance was the InsiderAdvantage/Florida Chamber of Commerce scientific poll conducted right after the debate.
Because Florida law prohibits opinion researchers from phoning households after 9 p.m., we started weeks ago to screen over 100,000 Florida Republican voters to participate in our poll. We found those who were undecided on whom to vote for, who planned to watch the debate, and who were willing to phone in afterward and tell us whom they thought won.
The results were overwhelming. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, just another obscure candidate a few weeks ago, won easily. Forty-four percent said he was the best debater of the night; Rudy Giuliani was a distant second with 18 percent.
Doubly startling was that our electronic survey of 1,035 Iowa Republican undecided voters, conducted in the final minutes of the debate, also showed Huckabee as the hands-down winner.
To me, several candidates stood out. Fred Thompson finally gathered himself and displayed an impressive combination of stamina, humor and authority. John McCain, although his policy positions are unpopular with many hard-core Republicans, also made a strong showing.
But clearly, Republican voters watching from home found a new conservative darling in Huckabee, if only for now.
Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney opened the debate with a nasty exchange. Its effect was to open the door for Huckabee to contrast himself by appearing as the calm, self-assured former chief executive. When Thompson and McCain joined in the crossfire of needling among the candidates, Huckabee’s stock kept rising all the more.
In all honesty, it didn’t dawn on me until the poll results came in after the debate that Huckabee also was able to retain his Christian conservative credentials without appearing "Christian judgmental." He was rational and compassionate.
In short, the man can no longer be dismissed or marginalized as a wannabe. Witness what happened near him after the debate in the media "spin room." That’s where the media gathers to drift among printed signs that indicate where to find each candidate’s professional advocates — their spinners.
Even before we got word of the startling results of the InsiderAdvantage/Florida Chamber poll that showed Huckabee was king of the ball, almost the entire media corps had pitched camp beneath the Huckabee sign. They’d sensed what Republican voters were saying in the poll.
Enter the other "fat man." Just as our camera crew and I approached Huckabee, a really big man began shoving his way through the press of people toward the former governor. After pushing me, he then body-slammed a Huckabee aide. A clearly startled Huckabee was hurried further away, and a security guard whisked the threatening man out.
Huckabee used to be quite "horizontally challenged" himself. Had the violent man reached him, Huckabee might have wished he’d retained some of his former girth as a way to protect himself. As it was, his debate performance was an impressive enough showing of prowess.
The Romney and Thompson camps are reeling from Huckabee’s debate triumph. Thompson finally stood tall with a presidential performance of his own, but not enough to propel his campaign to the forefront.
Romney appeared to waver and vacillate on issue after issue.
And it was no red-letter night for Giuliani. Just hours before the debate, his camp had to deal with an emerging potential scandal.
Now the question lingers: Will the rest of the Republican field be able to muscle aside the former "fat man" Huckabee, or will he catapult into the revered status of "frontrunner" just as the primary elections arrive?
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