Days before Florida's crucial Republican primary, Thursday's nationally televised debate could have been a bloodbath. It was more like a...

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BOCA RATON, Fla. — Days before Florida’s crucial Republican primary, Thursday’s nationally televised debate could have been a bloodbath.

It was more like a dull Rotary Club forum, with rivals doling out compliments and only occasional, polite disagreement. When they had the chance to pose questions to their rivals, they tossed Nerf balls.

Even the typically combative Rudy Giuliani, who has slipped to third place in Florida polls, declined to tear down John McCain or Mitt Romney, now wrestling for first place.

Some of the few compelling moments in the MSNBC broadcast came from a candidate who has stolen the show before: Mike Huckabee, equally at ease zapping an opponent, rattling off a colloquialism or waxing poignantly about trying to make ends meet. He made a crack about Romney, the father of five sons, spending his personal fortune on his campaign.

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“If the country will elect me president, they’ll inherit a great president and your boys will still get your money, too,” Huckabee told Romney.

But while Romney has been rattled by opponents in previous debates, he seemed animated Thursday night, touting his business background and relishing the prospect of running against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“She is Washington to the core,” he said. “She has been there too long. … The last thing America needs is sending the Clintons back to Washington.”

Much of the debate resembled an early-morning undergraduate economics class as the candidates portrayed themselves as best equipped to resuscitate the economy. All promised to cut taxes and spur consumer spending.

As in previous debates, Huckabee stood out by talking about the working poor.

“If you talk to the people at the bottom of the economy, the people who are handling the bags, the people who are serving the food, you’d get a different picture, because their health-care costs are up dramatically,” he said.

Emboldened by his victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, McCain increasingly has been portraying himself as the best candidate to take on Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama. The Arizona senator was the first candidate to mention Clinton by name, accusing her of “wanting to wave the white flag in Iraq.”

The debate was a reminder of the challenges the GOP will face in November, as all of the candidates defended the unpopular war in Iraq.

“Just because we didn’t find weapons of mass destruction doesn’t mean they weren’t there,” Huckabee said. “Just because you didn’t find the Easter egg doesn’t mean it wasn’t planted.”

Ron Paul, the maverick Texas congressman whose robust fundraising defies his marginal poll numbers, was the only candidate who said the U.S. should not have gone into Iraq.

“It wasn’t worth it,” he said.

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