Recap and Awards for Debate Winners

The Republican candidates for President gathered in South Carolina for their second debate. Jerry Falwell’s death announced earlier in the day only intensified media speculation as to what the candidates would say on social issues, which to the exclusion of most other topics including the pending immigration bill, had dominated the MSM coverage for days.

Indeed if you did not know better you would have thought the GOP hopefuls were gathering just to debate abortion. In the days preceding the debate coverage in the print, TV and website news of most traditional press focused on Rudy Giuliani’s recent difficulties in fending off an abortion question and then responding to revelations about Planned Parenthood donations and a NARAL questionnaire.

Headline after headline and story after story warned of Giuliani’s predicament and the sorry state of the GOP portrayed in the midst of a family squabble. “Giuliani Takes On G.O.P. Orthodoxy on Social Issues” intoned the May 12 New York Times. The morning of the debate the Washington Post began its front page story: “Ten Republican presidential candidates will gather in South Carolina for their second debate of the month, with much of the focus likely to be on former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani his continuing effort to extricate himself from a controversy over his position on abortion.” The major networks all ran stories postulating that an intra-party fight over abortion would be bad news for Republicans already operating under the burden of the unpopular war and sagging Bush Presidency.

There was only a hint that perhaps the MSM was barking up the wrong tree. A May 4 Gallup poll revealed that abortion tied with global warming as the 13th place winner in the “most important issue” question.

After all this build up the debate was sure to disappoint the MSM on two counts. First, the FOX moderators simply moderated and when appropriate followed up, by forcing the candidates to ask the question actually posed. Unlike Chris Matthews, Brit Hume, Chris Wallace and Wendell Goler asked no Chris Matthews’ conversation stoppers like whether the candidates would like to see Bill Clinton back in the White House or what the candidates hated about America. (One can imagine that only Herculean strength prevented any candidate from naming him.) In the contest between MSNBC and FOX moderators, FOX clearly came out the winner.

Second, although there was a round of questions on abortion and Giuliani did confirm his pro-choice stance, social issues were hardly the debates’ focus or the source of the fireworks, limited that they were. Questions on Iraq, terrorism, immigration, and the economy filled the bulk of the time. However, even after watching the debate, the MSM could not give up its theme of the week as the Washington Post reported: “The contenders also further exposed their party’s divisions over social issues, including abortion and stem cell research, on a day when the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death cast a shadow over the campaign.”

Rudy Giuliani clearly brought his “A” game, to the great delight of his staff who has weathered a rocky couple of weeks. Greatly aided by his Ron Paul moment and the moderators’ closing terrorism hypothetical, he kept the focus on national security, the economy and even reminded Republicans that their common goal was to keep Hillary Clinton and her anti-capitalist views out of the White House.

So the actual debate, rather than the debate the MSM might have liked, featured these moments and performances:

MOST MEMORABLE: Like Ronald Reagan seizing control with “I paid for this microphone!”, Giuliani boosted his leadership mantle by rapping the hapless Ron Paul for suggesting we brought 9-11 on ourselves, saying: ““That’s really an extraordinary statement. That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th. And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that.”

BEST LAUGH: Mike Huckabee accusing Washington of “spending money like John Edwards at a beauty shop.”

BEST COUNTERPUNCH: After Romney declared that he did not want McCain-Kennedy immigration reform to do for immigration what McCain-Feingold did for campaign finance, McCain retorted that he had taken and kept consistent positions on campaign finance reform and right to life and “I haven’t changed my position on even numbered years or changed because of the different offices I may be running for.”(Chris Wallace did not contain his laughter.)

HELPED THEIR CAUSE: For the second debate in a row Duncan Hunter impressed with his focus on trade, immigration and spending and his steady demeanor. Huckabee displayed good humor and common sense and offered an articulate defense of his economic record as Governor of Arkansas. Both showed why sometimes it is a good idea to include the “lower tier” candidates.

SHOULD HAVE SEEN IT COMING: Having used the death of a family friend in the 2002 Massachusetts Governor debate to explain his then commitment to the pro-choice cause, Romney seemed unprepared, perhaps a first for him, when the table was turned by the question asking how he would deal with a woman’s death from an illegal abortion if he were the one to appoint a judge who repealed Roe v. Wade. (He also lost points for not explaining that repeal of Roe would not make abortion illegal, but merely return that issue to the states.)

HE’S WORKING ON IT: Two criticisms of McCain’s performance from the first debate — too hot and too confrontational — were positively addressed. McCain had no “gates of hell moment” and was cool and controlled which made his jibe at Romney all the more effective. He also brought up a strength that the conservative base may not like but general election voters do: bipartisanship. He made a point of emphasizing his ability to reach across party lines, something those important independent voters complain about. Perhaps this is a sign of McCain’s growing confidence that he has a least half an eye on the general election race.

MAYBE SHOULD GET IN SOONER: With solid performances by Giuliani and McCain, Republican voters may soon grow found of one of their frontrunners. Perhaps candidates not yet in the races that are waiting for the current crop to self-destruct should reconsider and get in before it is too late.

LESSONS LEARNED: What the MSM covers on the one hand, and what voters and candidates care about on the other, often bear little resemblance. Republican candidates understand the priorities of the voters better than the MSM and would do well to do more of what we saw on Tuesday: debate the most important issues with good humor and good sense.