It was the Republican presidential candidates' turn to take questions from the great unwashed, and they didn't seem to have as much fun as the Democrats did. And it's not just because there was no talking snowman or Jackie Broyles and Dunlap.

The mostly mirthless two-hour CNN debate was the nastiest of this election cycle. Rudy Giuliani attacked Mitt Romney. Fred Thompson went after Romney and Mike Huckabee, John McCain beat up on Ron Paul and Chuck Norris sat menacingly in the crowd.

Can you tell the Iowa caucuses are a little over a month away?

The YouTube format didn't go over well with many bloggers. "I feel lucky to be from an earlier century where your own founding fathers knew that the secret to government is to protect it from the daily mob," wrote Richelieu at the Weekly Standard (1). "Clearly the boundless paranoia of middle-aged media executives about the kids and their mysterious 'Internet' has led them to stoop to this kind of pandering foolishness. They should feel shame tonight. So, a good night for the lowest denominator, a bad night for the GOP. America got to see a vaguely threatening parade of gun fetishists, flat worlders, Mars Explorers, Confederate flag lovers and zombie-eyed-Bible-wavers as well as various one issue activists hammering their pet causes."

Agreeing was Jim Geraghty of the Campaign Spot (2). "Not the best debate. One of the worst, actually. Based on the tone and answers given tonight, you would think that the Republican Party seethes with a blistering resentment of immigrants, with only the briefest of pauses to distinguish between those who are illegal and legal. You would think that the only tax plan that they like is the Fair Tax, and that they would like to somehow eliminate all taxes and let somebody else figure out how to fund the parts of the government that are actually needed. Guys, I thought we were small-government conservatives, not no-government anarchists. ... [T] this is crunch time, and having questions and introductions from attention-starved wannabe entertainers just enhanced the sense that this format can devolve into a colossal waste of time."

Marc Ambinder (3) graded the candidates, and he proved to be pretty generous. "McCain's mix of resigned sighs, sober mien and sense of humor went over well with a crowd that seemed predisposed to be wary of him. ... Giuliani had a an 'eh' to 'poor' night. He seemed deflated. A little defensive. ... Thompson: He gets more comfortable with every debate. Tonight, he repeatedly matched parts of his resume to the issues at hand, a way of answering the lingering question that he's checked out. It was a very good performance in a state he needs to pump his numbers. His answer on guns was very clear and strong. ... Huckabee held his own and was not really subjected to close scrutiny. A strong answer for his Iowa audience on the bible. Romney had a strong night, seemed raring to go, seemed to be willing to take on everybody, anybody, all comers, seemed to want to pick every fight possible."

But two other bloggers gushed over the former Arkansas governor and the other Man from Hope. "Huck gave clear, thoughtful answers to questions about the death penalty, the Bible and immigration, blogged Jennifer Skalka at Hotline On Call (4). "He also had the funniest line of the night, per the WWJD? death penalty inquiry. 'Jesus Was Too Smart to Ever Run for Public Office, Anderson.' Huckabee also looked more statesmanlike than his frontrunner counterparts, who sniped about sanctuary cities, illegal workers and more."

"For those of us who've been following the former Arkansas governor, tonight's performance wasn't particularly surprising,' wrote Andrew Romano at Newsweek's Stumper (5). "He did folksy (''When they're kicking you in the rear it means you're still out front'). He did funny ('More people are more afraid of an audit than they are a mugging, and there's a reason why'). And he did faithful ('[The Bible] is the word of revelation between God and all of us.') But remember: at the last GOP debate in late October, Huckabee was a nonentity; now he's tied for first in Iowa, and people are paying attention."

But Andrew Sullivan (6) called the debate "[Karl] Rove's Frankenstein moment." "[I]t's clear that today's Dixie-based, pro-torture, anti-immigrant GOP will find it very hard to accept the bipartisan, anti-torture supporter of comprehensive immigration reform as its candidate. Romney really is a tool. Giuliani is just too urban for the party Rove has built. So you can see why Huckabee is rising."

tobrien@startribune.com

The debate's biggest loser

If CNN hoped to shed its reputation in the conservative blogosphere (it's referred to as the Clinton News Network), it should have done a better job vetting just who was submitting questions. Turns out several were from people supporting Democrats, and in one case, an actual member of a Hillary Clinton steering committee.

•Michelle Malkin (7) was outraged. "The best thing about Republicans agreeing to do the CNN/YouTube debate is that it created yet another invaluable opportunity to expose CNN's abject incompetence."

But Captain Ed at Captain's Quarters (8) told everyone to just relax. "Bad journalistic practices? Definitely yes. But does that negate the questions themselves? I don't think so. The CNN/YouTube format closely parallels that of the traditional town-hall forum. For the most part, attendees do not get vetted at these events either, nor should they. After all, while a primary usually involves voters of one party, the entire nation has a stake in the selection of the nominees. If Hillary Clinton held a town hall in my community, I should have an opportunity to question her about her positions on issues without pledging a loyalty oath to do so. ... At some point, this will cease being an intramural fight and we will have to convince all of America to vote for our nominee. That won't happen if we can't handle fastballs, with a couple of curveballs in the mix."

SEE FOR YOURSELF HOW TO FIND THE BLOGS

1 Campaign Standard • weeklystandard.com/weblogs/CampaignStandard 2 Campaign Spot • campaignspot.nationalreview.com 3 Marc Ambinder • marcambinder.theatlantic.com 4 Hotline On Call • hotlineblog.nationaljournal.com 5 Stumper • blog.newsweek.com/blogs/stumper 6 Andrew Sullivan • andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com 7 Michelle Malkin • michellemalkin.com 8 Captain's Quarterscaptainsquartersblog.com Johan, don't let the door hit you on the way out

And the same holds true for Joe Nathan and anyone else the Twins can deal. Don't get me wrong -- these guys are class acts. But the greatest pitcher of his generation and one of the best relievers in the game deserve big money and, more importantly, a shot at a World Series ring -- just as Torii Hunter deserves. With the Twins, they'll get neither. Not with this owner. So let Bill Smith loose (I wish he were in my Rotisserie baseball league) and build for the future with some up-and-coming players who will contend by 2010, our first year in the new ballpark. And, please, don't trade Santana to the Yankees. I want to be able to root for him.