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Republican debate 

Nine Republican presidential candidates were offered a 90-minute forum in Iowa this morning, the questioning led by ABC's George Stephanopoulos

War and foreign policy and the role of the vice president were among the topics that marked a discussion a little weightier than some the campaign has seen.

Former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee had limited openings. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney seemed to dominate the air time. But Huckabee was served a fat pitch when offered a chance to advocate the "fair tax," a 23 percent national sales tax. It's popular among Iowa Republican voters. His laugh line was that it's more painful to be audited by the IRS than to be mugged. It got only a scattering of laughs, perhaps because the IRS mostly audits poor people who get the earned income tax credit now.

Romney countered that though the fair tax might sound good, throwing out the tax system is not realistic.

Huckabee said he'd stay the course in Iraq. On health care, he recited his mantra that the system is wrong to focus on sickness rather than health. He joined every other candidate -- to their discredit -- in saying they opposed Republican Sen. Charles Grassley's proposal to expand health insurance coverage for children. The essential objection: It might harm the private insurance industry, on which Republicans are dependent for so much campaign support.

Additionally, Huckabee said he didn't favor President George Bush's idea of spreading democracy through elections abroad. He said it'd be better to make America a strong place rather than forcing its beliefs on other.

Would he raise the gasoline tax to pay for highway infrastructure? He sidestepped this, saying the country could find badly needed infrastructure money by reducing what it spends in other countries. Iraq? 

He said his biggest mistake was "not taking good care of my own personal health for the first half of my life." 

His chief goal as president? "I'd never forget who the boss really is" -- the people.

Romney did well, though he was battered for his flip-flop on abortion by Sam Brownback. Giuliani drew a laugh when asked about his biggest mistake:

"Your father is a priest," the former mayor said to Stephanopoulos. "I'm going to explain it to your father, not to you, OK?

Here's ABC News' coverage. In on-line voting immediately after the debate, Ron Paul was the leading vote getter for his unalloyed anti-war message. Major media coverage -- AP, Reuters, Washington Post, New York Times -- barely mentioned the Arkansas governor in the debate recaps. Romney's criticism of Barack Obama on foreign policy issues seemed to capture most attention.

On the other hand, a Fox News focus group of Republicans registered a strong positive reaction to Huckabee, according to this report.

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