What happened
Republican presidential hopefuls traded personal attacks in an unconventional debate—sponsored by CNN and YouTube—in which voters asked sometimes emotional questions in 33 short videos. Mitt Romney, a front-runner in early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire, took the most heat as the candidates fought over illegal immigration, torture, abortion, and other divisive issues. (Los Angeles Times, free registration)

What the commentators said
This GOP “smackdown” was a painful reminder that one of these guys will be nominated for president, said Gail Collins in The New York Times (free registration). Panderers Romney and Giuliani attacked each other over illegal immigration “in such an irritating way that even the panderees would have to be turned off.” And these are the front-runners? “It’s no wonder the Republican voters are veering back and forth, rejecting one candidate after another.”

This was one of the worst GOP debates, to be sure, said Jim Geraghty in National Review Online’s The Campaign Spot blog. The “tone” of the evening—especially on immigration—was “prickly,” and the YouTubers’ questions “ranged from the pedestrian to the flat out bad.” There’s “room for this wackiness” early on, but this format looks like “a colossal waste of time” now that it’s “crunch time” and the Iowa caucuses are just a few weeks away.”

“And, please God, no more debate questions about the Bible,” said Walter Shapiro in Salon.com. Last time I checked, there were “no religious tests for holding public office in the United States.” So why was rising star Mike Huckabee—a Baptist minister—“all but offering to give scripture lessons” to Giuliani? “The whole evening was enough to try my faith . . . in democracy.”

“Talking about the Bible” was one the things that helped Huckabee “cement his image as an articulate, utterly engaging social conservative” in this debate, said Jennifer Rubin in HumanEvents.com. And Sen. John McCain was another winner after showing, once again, how “seasoned” he is with a withering rebuttal to Romney’s unwillingness to call waterboarding torture. So if you didn’t like the debates, blame the “silly” YouTube format, not the candidates.