Sitting in the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in preparation for the last Republican Debate before the South Carolina GOP primary Jan. 19, it was hard not to compare it to the posh digs of the Charleston debate in July. Charleston had the Google snack room, the Google spin room, and the Google after party. There was talk in the media room in Myrtle Beach of hitting the hotel bar afterwards. The horror!

In the end, the debate gave candidates opportunities to talk a little about the economy and immigration and a lot about Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. All are important topics, but a quick glance at a list of debate issues distributed by the state’s Republican Party shows what slipped through the cracks: tourism, transportation, health care, education, the environment, and social security. Here’s a look at what the candidates had to say (with a little pithy commentary to make it readable).

Thompson vs. Huckabee

Recognizing South Carolina as his last stand, former Law & Order star Fred Thompson got back to what he does best — providing some TV drama. He started out with a long list of perceived conservative abuses by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee including an opposition to Guantanamo and school vouchers and support for a nationwide smoking ban and programs for the children of illegals.

“He would be a Christian leader,” Thompson said of Huckabee. “But he would also bring about liberal economic policies, liberal foreign polices.”

The irony of recent Republican spending and the Bush administration’s foreign policy failures were apparently lost on the crowd.

Fred didn’t stop there. Any slip from Huckabee led to a Thompson attempt to make him look foolish. Huckabee, who also has to win South Carolina to remain relevant in the race, took the higher road, pointing to the positive parts of his record: he cut taxes and he cut spending. “What I did was I governed,” Huckabee said. Yeah, govern … and eat.

Iranian Face-off = FOX Porn

The largest share of the 90-minute debate went to the recent nautical exchange between U.S. vessels and Iranian fast boats. It started as an assertion by Brit Hume that the American troops erred in not starting a war. The moderator also tried to make Huckabee look either weak or incompetent on foreign policy (which is kind of like picking on the smallest guy on the playground).

Hume used the word “provocative” to describe the exchange. Thompson went on to proclaim the Iranians were one step away from meeting “those virgins that they’re looking forward to seeing.” He then called the Iranian military “frisky.” Any surprise there was a impotence pill commercial broadcast during the next break?

Pile on Paul

There was hardly a question provided to the rogue GOP candidate that wasn’t a veiled attempt to embarrass him or make him and his supporters look foolish. He handled the first few well, but seemed to fall into defensive responses to later questions out of habit. At one point, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney went after Paul, obviously trying to knock out his competition for fifth place. Paul said we’re already in a recession and we have to face up to it, but warned against “over-stimulating” the economy and exerting too much control in the Middle East; he added that the Republican Party isn’t conservative anymore. “I think we’ve lost our way,” he said. “And then the insinuation is that I’m less Republican because of that.” For the most part, Paul was a bit more like the tolerable Grandpa Munster than crazy Uncle Fester — though neither should be running a country.

Romney on the Ropes

If there was ever a top-tier candidate who had to fight to prove his relevance in the campaign, it was Romney. Ron Paul seemed to get more face time than Romney in the debate (where’s the Chris Dodd clock when you need it?). When the perennial second place finisher did get a word in, he seemed to be running for governor of Michigan. Set for a primary on Jan. 15, the state that once seemed like a sure bet for Romney has turned into his last shot at a win as McCain and Huckabee muscle in with hopes of offering a final blow to this year’s best-funded flailing campaign.

Responding to questions after the debate about pulling ad money out of South Carolina during the week of the primary, Romney replied that “in some states, you’re up, and in some states, you’re not.” Guess where he is in South Carolina. The post-debate spin room told the tale as Sen. Lindsey Graham, a McCain buddy, held court over a mass of media, while Sen. Jim DeMint, a Romney supporter, waited with a handful of bloggers with handheld cameras. Romney’s working Obama’s “change” message right now. We’d suggest moving on to Edward’s “four years in Iowa” plan and meet us back here in 2012.

Random Observations

While he’s gotten a rap for being a little sluggish on the campaign trail, Thompson told the crowd he helped pass welfare reform and a balanced budget when he “went to Washington in 199…” something.

Giuliani says that he’ll cut taxes to raise revenues, while also cutting spending. The political math would provide a surplus that the FOX moderators were disinterested in. We’re betting on a presidential retreat at Ground Zero.

Romney said foreign policy isn’t like the two-man game of checkers that it was in the 20th century. It’s now like three-dimensional chess … which is still a two-man game.

America’s borders need to be “high fences and wide gates,” Thompson said. But the real question is whether the gate will have a little person in a green outfit heckling the Mexicans who knock.

Romney said McCain’s win in New Hampshire didn’t mean voters wanted experience. No, it meant they wanted McCain.