Though Fred Thompson finally ended his dance of the seven veils and revealed his candidacy to Jay Leno in a taped appearance on NBC’s “Tonight Show,” it’s Mike Huckabee – who has always made the most of his limited time in the spotlight as a second-tier candidate – who’s looking sexy after Wednesday’s “The First of the Fall Republican Debate” in Durham, NH.

The highlight of the evening was the electrifying and impassioned give-and-take – imagine, an actual debate broke out at the “you have one minute for answers, 30 second for rebuttals” debate! – between Huckabee and Ron Paul on whether and when to pull out of Iraq.

Chris Wallace set the stage by asking the anti-war Paul whether the US should try “to minimize the bloodbath that would certainly occur if we pull out,” protect “the thousands of Iraqis who have staked their lives in backing the U.S” and if troops should be left in the region “to take out any al Qaeda camps that are developed after we leave?” Paul explained his positions more lucidly than ever before:

Paul: “The people who say there will be a bloodbath are the ones who said it will be a cakewalk or it will be a slam dunk, and that it will be paid for by oil. Why believe them? Why believe them? They’ve been wrong on everything they’ve said. … The war has not gone well one bit. … The fact that we had troops in Saudi Arabia was one of the three reasons given for the attack on 9/11. So why leave them in the region? They don’t want our troops on the Arabian Peninsula. We have no need for our national security to have troops on the Arabian Peninsula, and going into Iraq and Afghanistan and threatening Iran is the worst thing we can do for our national security.”

Wallace: “[Y]ou’re basically saying that we should take our marching orders from al Qaeda? If they want us off the Arabian Peninsula, we should leave?”

Paul: “No! I’m saying we should take our marching orders from our Constitution. We should not go to war without a declaration. We should not go to war when it’s an aggressive war. This is an aggressive invasion. We’ve committed the invasion of this war, and it’s illegal under international law. That’s where I take my marching orders, not from any enemy.”

After Sam Brownback weighed in on all this, Huckabee took it right to Paul. Speaking in measured tones, Huckabee came off as strong and principled, but the more excitable Paul became, the higher-pitched and whinier his voice got so even if he said something that made sense, he sounded unreasonable:

Huckabee: Congressman, whether or not we should have gone to Iraq is a discussion the historians can have, but we’re there. … We’ve got a responsibility to the honor of this country and to the honor of every man and woman who has served in Iraq and ever served in our military to not leave them with anything less than the honor that they deserve.

Paul: The American people didn’t go in. A few people advising this administration, a small number of people called the neoconservatives hijacked our foreign policy. They’re responsible, not the American people.

Huckabee: Congressman, we are one nation. We can’t be divided. We have to be one nation under G-d. That means if we make a mistake, we make it as a single country, the United States of America, not the divided states of America.

Paul: We’ve dug a hole for ourselves and we dug a hole for our party! We’re losing elections and we’re going down next year if we don’t change it, and it has all to do with foreign policy, and we have to wake up to this fact.

Huckabee: Even if we lose elections, we should not lose our honor, and that is more important to the Republican Party.

Wallace and his colleague, Wendell Goler, threw tough questions at the candidates, but it seemed to The Stiletto that Giuliani – who got asked questions that would have made a lesser man squirm (as Romney did when a voter whose son served two tours in Iraq slammed him for comparing being in harm’s way to Romney’s five sons riding the Mitt Mobile to further their father’s political ambitions) – was able to explain himself clearly and forthrightly, without hemming and hawing or bobbing and weaving:

Wallace: Back in 1994, you said the following: “If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you’re one of the people who we want in this city. You’re somebody that we want to protect, and we want you to get out from under what is often a life of being a fugitive, which is really unfair.” As president, would you continue to protect illegals from what you then called unfair enforcement of our borders?

Giuliani: Chris, you haven’t really described the entire extent of the executive order. The first part of the executive order points out that the police should report all illegals suspected of committing a crime or who have committed a crime. In fact, the year before I was mayor the immigration service stopped taking names from the police department of people that the police department were reporting. So the problem that I had was I had 400,000 illegal immigrants – roughly – in New York City, and I had a city that was the crime capital of America.

***

Goler: Fred Thompson says the Virginia Tech tragedy might have been lessened if some of the students had been allowed to carry guns. He also says that he never felt safe in your city because of its gun control laws. What do you have to say to him about either of these assertions?

Giuliani: Well, I would say to him the FBI would disagree with that. New York City was during the years that I was mayor the safest large city in the United States. … I took a city that was the crime capital of America, and I made it not only the safest large city in America, I made it safer than 189 small cities.

Goler: And the idea of letting college students carry weapons?

Giuliani: The focus of our law should be on criminals. That’s what I did in New York City. I reduced shootings in New York City by 75 percent. And I did it by focusing not on guns but on criminals, putting them in jail, putting them in jail for long periods of time when they committed crimes with guns, and it worked.

***

Wallace: Mayor Giuliani, you say that you were a big tax cutter in New York, but you did raise fees and fines, and in fact you even went to court to fight elimination of the commuter tax. … [W]hy not take the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to increase marginal rates, sir?

Giuliani: It’s a matter of principle. I think if you’re president of the United States, you take one pledge: to uphold the Constitution of the United States. There would be literally thousands of issues on which you would take a pledge if you let groups do that to you. So I’ve always taken the view that you take one pledge, it’s to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

Carl Cameron, who was stationed at a local eatery to field questions from voters, gave University of New Hampshire poly-sci major James Tautkus the mike to ask an incomprehensibly phrased question that turned out to be about Giuliani’s messy private life.

Giuliani: I certainly haven’t lived a perfect life. I am not running as the perfect candidate for president of the United States. I’m running as a human being who has been very successful as a leader, and had definable results in a situation in which people thought it was impossible to accomplish these things. … So obviously any issues in my private life do not affect my public performance.

Finally, Giuliani gave arguably the smartest answer of the bunch to the loaded hypothetical with which moderator Brit Hume likes to end Fox-sponsored debates. In this scenario, U.N. weapons inspectors say that Iran is on the verge of – or even may already be – producing nukes. U.S. inspectors have been kicked out of the country, the number of cross-border incidents between Iran and Iraq have increased, and the threats against Israel have escalated:

Giuliani: Well, I think that we have to look Iran really in a different way than just a Cold War analysis. … Iran is right now the single biggest state sponsor of Islamic terrorism. … So the real risk, to me, is not their launching an attack … The more realistic one is, they’re going to hand nuclear material off to the terrorists that they are presently supplying. So America has to have a clear position. The position should be that Iran is not going to be allowed to go nuclear. … Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot, but it was because he pointed like a thousand missiles at Soviet cities. And he negotiated with them. I heard this confusion in the Democratic debate about when to talk and when not to talk- well, he talked to them with a thousand missiles pointed directly at their cities.

Perhaps The Stiletto was watching a different debate on Wednesday night than the sad-sack group of NH voters gathered together by pollster Frank Luntz, who thought that the debate was disappointing, that John McCain was the clear winner and that Rudy kept harping on his experience as NYC’s mayor too much.

Why shouldn’t Rudy talk about how he turned around NYC – and how he kept his head on 9/11 while all about him were losing theirs? The Stiletto lived in NYC during the Dinkins years, and has some understanding of what it might be like to live in Beirut. What Rudy accomplished was nothing less than a miracle – and he even lowered her taxes to boot!

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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