WASHINGTON - When Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado looked down the lineup of fellow Republican presidential candidates and said he had a question for the governor "because you're leading the pack now," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney straightened up as if readying himself for a punch.
But Tancredo interjected, "no, no no," and pointed instead at former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, as Romney receded with a locked-jaw smile.
Yesterday's Des Moines Register debate underscored the changes in the Republican presidential race, with most participants clearly believing that Huckabee - not Romney - is the man to beat in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, while those two and as many as three other candidates compete for the lead in the half-dozen other states also voting in January.
By its end, the debate had served mainly to reinforce the new dynamics of the GOP race: There was no big winner and no loser, though the focus on domestic issues played to the strengths of Romney, Huckabee, and former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee.
With new issues on the table and national polls showing a wide-open race, some candidates offered unfamiliar wrinkles: Thompson, finally, showed some of his folksy charm that hadn't fully registered in earlier debates; Romney, finally, showed some pride in Massachusetts, crowing about its tops-in-the-nation student test scores; and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, finally, acknowledged that his leadership credentials are based "not just on Sept. 11."
Of the nine candidates on the stage, Huckabee had the most to lose, and he didn't lose much. He seemed likable, nimble on his feet, and - at most points - broadly appealing.
No one challenged Huckabee on the report that he had called as recently as 1992 for isolating people with AIDS - long after fears that AIDS might be transmitted through casual contact were put to rest; Huckabee was allowed to joke about all the new scrutiny coming his way without having to answer any questions raised by it.
His answers to questions were colorful and sometimes even humorous, though his use of religious imagery might have been jarring to some voters, especially outside the Bible Belt.
"I can't part the Red Sea, but I can part the red tape," Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, said in response to a question on government spending.
The debate began with Register editor Carolyn Washburn, who served as moderator, saying the Iraq war and illegal immigration would be minimized in the debate, not because they weren't important, but because voters already knew where candidates stood.
As a result, many questions focused on the economy, and candidates who spent earlier debates competing to show who was the toughest on terrorism now competed over who was the more committed tax-cutter.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, whose campaign has been focused largely on the war on terrorism, seemed to lose energy with Iraq off the table. He has been sturdy in recent debates, biding his time in hopes that Romney, Giuliani, and Huckabee would destroy one another with negative attacks.
But yesterday McCain was flat. At one point, he declared he had no idea which income group carried the largest share of the tax burden, as if such a question were a gimmick to be dismissed.
The shift to domestic issues, however, gave a boost to those who lacked experience in foreign policy.
Romney, for one, was able to argue persuasively that his experience in the private sector would make him an effective budget-cutter. More important, the chance to discuss business matters gave him a greater ease of manner; he offered fewer scripted sound bites than he does when talking about Iraq or illegal immigration.
But when Romney said that he doesn't stay up at night worrying about the taxes paid by the rich - a line he uses on the stump - Thompson was ready with a quip about Romney's wealth: "My goal is to get into the Mitt Romney situation where I don't have to worry about taxes."
Before the debate, many analysts had counted Thompson out of the race based on his plunging poll numbers; his appealing manner yesterday suggested he could yet be a factor.
Others on the stage yesterday seemed certain not to be factors. The large number of marginal candidates - including Tancredo, Representative Duncan Hunter of California, and even talk-show host Alan Keyes, making a surprise appearance as if beamed out of the 2000 GOP debates - was a distraction from the business at hand: choosing a nominee.
Yesterday's debate didn't go very far toward getting that business done.