The Dumb Show in New Hampshire

The debate's first question went to Mitt Romney: "Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?"

"Well, the question is kind of a non sequitur … or a null set," he said, because if "Saddam Hussein had open(ed) up his country to (UN weapons) inspections and they'd come in … we wouldn't be in the conflict we're in." The question was also, he said, "hypothetical."

Whatever may have been wrong with the question, it was not a non sequitur, for it did not follow anything, and therefore could not have followed it inappropriately. Considering that the United States actually did invade Iraq, it wasn't a hypothetical either.

And a null set? Well, in measure theory that's a "set that is negligible for the purposes of the measure in question," which appears irrelevant to the decidedly non-mathematical matter under discussion.

Oh, and Saddam Hussein did allow the weapons inspectors in. It was President Bush who kicked them out.

Romney's answers set the tone for a two-hour session at St. Anslem College outside Manchester, New Hampshire, in which the ten Republican presidential candidates kept misusing words, misstating facts, and confusing dates. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee announced that "today's the birthday of Ronald Reagan," who was born on February 6, 1911. Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado proclaimed that "bi-lingual countries don't work," as though Belgium did not exist and thrive. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, apparently befuddled about the dates of the Cold War, said that in their debate Sunday night, "the Democrats seemed to be back in the 1990s. They don't seem to have gotten beyond the Cold War."

It isn't that the Democrats are paragons of accuracy. But most of their dubious assertions are at least debatable, or are the consequences of the selective and artful use of information to make themselves look better. At least over these two evenings, they demonstrated a marginally closer connection to reality than did the Republicans, who sometimes seemed to be back in the 1950s.

Even Senator John McCain of Arizona declined the opportunity to endorse the reality of evolution after two of the other candidates had pronounced themselves agnostics on Darwinian theory but firm believers in divine intent. In fact, when asked whether "creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the nation's schools," McCain said, "no," but quickly amended that to a qualified yes. "I believe that that's up to the school districts," he said. "But I think that every American should be exposed to all theories."

The other leading candidates, Romney and Giuliani, were not asked about their views on evolution. They could have sought moderator Wolf Blitzer's attention to get into that part of the conversation. They chose not to try. Only Representative Ron Paul of Texas, at once the most conservative of the candidates and the one whose views in some areas are downright left-wing, made any objection to the religiosity of the discussion. "I think we should read the First Amendment, where it says, 'Congress shall write no law,' and we should write a lot less laws regarding this matter," he said.

But he was a minority of one. God played a greater role here than in any presidential debate since the dawn of the television age. His name appears 26 times in the transcript prepared by CNN, the debate's main sponsor. By contrast, the word "constitution" appears three times, twice used by Ron Paul, once by Giuliani.

If the target audience was New Hampshire Republicans, sinking this deeply into the spiritual seems … well, irrational. New Hampshire Republicans tend to be Roman Catholics or "Congos," to use the friendly regional slang for the old Congregationalist Church (now often called the United Church of Christ). In neither denomination is wearing one's religious beliefs on the sleeve a common practice, and even the social conservatives among them tend to keep religion and politics in separate realms.

Targeting New Hampshire Republicans might be a good idea. For all the talk about the importance of February 5 and all the big states that will vote then, the consequences of this primary, now likely to be held two or three weeks earlier than the January 22 date still penciled in on the political calendars, has not declined; it may have grown.

The nationwide polls show clear favorites in both parties -- Senator Hillary Clinton of New York for the Democrats, Giuliani for the Republicans. But the polls in Iowa, whose precinct caucuses are scheduled for January 14, and here in New Hampshire, show different results. Clinton trails former Senator John Edwards in Iowa; McCain and Romney are at least even with Giuliani here.

And remember this, so easy for those closely tracking the campaign to forget: Most voters are not yet following the campaign very attentively. Those polls then, especially the nationwide polls, measure preferences very lightly held. Should another candidate -- not a voter's early choice -- win one of the early contests, or even finish a surprisingly close second or third, just about when that voter starts paying closer attention, that candidate could easily woo the voter away from his or her early preference.

Already the polls may be shifting slightly. Some show Giuliani losing a little ground, and one showed that many Republican voters are not yet aware that he is pro-choice on abortion and generally in favor of gay rights. Many of those voters are not.

That's why it was important for all three front-runners to do well here. They did, especially McCain, whose lone defense of the immigration bill now before the Senate allowed him to reclaim, at least for a while, that image of the independent-minded straight-shooter that won the New Hampshire primary against George Bush in 2000. After Tancredo called for a temporary halt to all immigration and defended his recent description of Miami as a "third-world city," McCain left no doubt that he found such views of Tancredo and some of the others indistinguishable from outright bigotry.

"Hispanics is what we're talking about," he said. "A different culture, a different language, which has enriched my state, where Spanish was spoken before English was." That drew some applause, but so had the earlier statements from the other candidates against the immigration bill.

Even more than the Democrats, the Republicans are in a three-way race. A few of the second-tier Democrats could rise into the first tier, especially if one of the front-runners stumbles. That seems less likely on the Republican side, which explains the interest in the likely entry of former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee into the race. The conventional wisdom, given some support in the polling, is that none of today's three front-runners is reliably conservative enough for the party's conservative base. Thompson seems to be.

Thompson polls well, more due to his acting fame than to his brief and not overly distinguished Senate career. So in a sense there are already four front-runners, which is at least one too many. The old rule -- "there are only three tickets out of Iowa" -- still applies, unless the New Hampshire primary ends up being earlier than Iowa. In that case, there will be only three tickets out of here.

There will be plenty more debates before that train pulls out. This campaign moves at a faster rate than earlier ones, but there is time enough for surprises, twists, and turns. Predictions about who will get a ticket on the train should be greeted skeptically. Under other circumstances, one might be tempted to say, "God only knows," but that could become part of the Republican platform.