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ALEX COHEN, host:

And now to last night's Republican debate, where frontrunner John McCain slugged it out with his chief rival, Mitt Romney.

And here to talk about it with us is Slate's John Dickerson.

Welcome back, John.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Slate): Hey, thank you.

COHEN: First off, let's listen to a little bit from last night's debate. Here's an exchange over Iraq. Senator McCain had been criticizing Governor Romney for what he saw as not supporting the surge. Here was Governor Romney's response.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor of Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): If this was a question, it could've been raised in April or May.

Unidentified Man (Moderator): On the second issue...

Mr. ROMNEY: The issue that was raised...

Unidentified Man: I want to give you an opportunity...

Mr. ROMNEY: Senator, it was raised...

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): I've raised it many times. I've raised it many times, as to whether you have the experience and the judgment to lead this country in the war against radical Islamic extremism. I've raised that many times.

Mr. ROMNEY: I want to...

Unidentified Man: Senator McCain.

Sen. McCAIN: And I will continue to raise it.

COHEN: A little booing there at the Reagan Library, John. What exactly happened last night?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, the two of them got into this debate once again about McCain's characterization of Romney's position in April of 2000, about the question of whether there should be timetables for withdrawal of the troops in Iraq. This is a stretch on McCain's part, and he's been hammering it home and Romney was trying to defend himself. It was kind of a weak defense though, because the question of whether McCain raised it in the past or more recently is sort of a side point. Really what's at issue is whether McCain is distorting Romney's position.

COHEN: You know, John, I listened to the first half of this debate on the radio and then I got home and tuned in just at about this point. At first, when I was listening on the radio, McCain sounded kind of tired, and then you watched him on TV, and boy, did he look confident. He was smiling. Do you think his attack worked?

Mr. DICKERSON: I think it worked. I think that these debates - it's very hard to tell what kind of a role they play. You know, in the Florida debate, Mitt Romney was seen to have done very well, and he lost the Florida primary. And McCain looked confident. He was leaning on the desk, sort of very in command of the moment. There were plenty of instance, though, where Romney was in command of the facts, made some pretty good attacks on McCain, what he sees as McCain's liberal record. But in the end, A) debates may not matter that much; and B) McCain has two very big endorsements, Rudy Giuliani just before the debate, and now Governor Schwarzenegger of California is endorsing him as well. That's the real big news, and anything that happened in the debate I'm guessing probably gets swept away.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

John, let's ask about these endorsements then. Governor Schwarzenegger. Is that really going to matter? Do you think that the endorsements may be more important at this point than seeing the candidates in debate?

Mr. DICKERSON: I think it matters for a couple of reasons. One, it wins the news cycle. You know, now there are going to be lots of pictures of McCain and Schwarzenegger, and it adds to this sense that McCain has momentum, momentum built up by his most recent win in Florida. It also helps in California, a key state, on Super Tuesday, where McCain is ahead by almost 10 points in the polls. So it - endorsements are always tricky things. You're not quite sure how much they matter. But in a big state where McCain has the momentum, this kind of kicks that momentum along.

CHADWICK: Let's just note that there were two other people in the debate last night, Governor Huckabee and Congressman Ron Paul. I don't know how things look for them and how you think things look for Super Tuesday for Senator McCain and Governor Romney?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, it's a question. It looks like McCain is ahead in many of the Super Tuesday states. He benefits from Huckabee still being in the race. Huckabee at times had to interrupt the moderators and say, hey, don't forget about me. Huckabee takes a lot of those conservative voters who are suspicious of McCain, takes them away from Romney. If Huckabee were out of the race it would be a cleaner two-man race, and Romney would probably benefit. But it looks like McCain is ahead in the polls, has the momentum, has the endorsements, and Romney didn't lay a sufficient glove on him last night in the debate to change the dynamic. So he'll have to in the short days before Super Tuesday comes up.

CHADWICK: John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for Slate.com.

John, thank you.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you, Alex.

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