Open thread: The last Fred-less GOP debate; Update: Huckabee clashes with Paul over the surge; Update: GOP candidates smack Fred; Update: Rudy defends his personal life

Eight elephants in a room and another who isn’t. The only one likely to mention Fred is Huckabee, who’s been knocking him regularly of late to try to boost his profile as a social con alternative. Count on a video highlight or two here later; the obligatory “Fred announces on Leno’s couch” clip will get its own post shortly after midnight. (FYI, the taping’s over and he’s already made it official.) Standard rules apply — if you’re watching and you see something, say something.

Some reading while we wait. Carl Cameron, who contributed to today’s earlier Fox News bombshell about Fred and who called the world’s attention to the fact that he rode around the Iowa state fair in a golf cart, kicks off the coverage tonight by noting how pissed the New Hampshire Republicans are at him for skipping the debate. Rush Limbaugh piles on by smacking Fred for devaluing the office of the presidency by announcing on Leno, an odd gripe for someone as media savvy as he is. Meanwhile, the last guy to announce on Leno takes a hard look at the electoral master stroke the GOP is trying to pull off in his state and comes out against it, naturally. And Rudy’s campaign trumpets the fact that he’s locked up Robert Duvall’s endorsement, which is somehow viscerally, if not logically, impressive, even if it does possibly reinforce the increasingly poisonous image of the party as “very old-fashioned, very old and not in touch with the realities of today’s society.”

I’ll leave you with Hillary’s awful new cookie-cutter ad about “change” with “experience.” It’s good at moments like these to remember the big differences with the other side.

Update: Here’s the first and quite possibly last highlight of a dreary affair — Mike Huckabee going toe to toe with the Only Conspiracy Theorist Who Can Save America. Don’t be thrown by the applause for Paul; his groupies turn out en masse for these events to try to create the impression that he’s doing better than 2% in the polls. Note the strain of conspiracy theorizing even here in the suggestion that it was a cabal of neocons, not the overwhelming majorites in the Senate and House that authorized the war and the 70% or so of the public that supported it, that’s to blame. Huckabee did a graceful job responding, as usual.

Update: Brit wasn’t going to let them dodge the elephant in the room. Here’s the very first question of the night, preceded by a transparent slap at Fred ducking the debate by the head of the New Hampshire GOP.

Update: Arguably the most interesting, and deftly handled, answer of the evening. Frank Luntz’s focus group says it was McCain’s night, though.