Republican Debates: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In a debate anchored by the solid journalistic skills of moderators Brit Hume, Wendell Goler and Chris Wallace, 10 potential Republican candidates for President tackled difficult questions and traded accusations in Columbia, South Carolina last night.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuiliani rose to genuine success in the hearts of many Americans when he interjected Congressman Ron Paul’s argument that America essentially asked for 9/11. “I don’t think I’ve ever hard that before and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11,” said Giuliani. “I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t’ really mean that.”

After sputtering through questions about his stance on abortion, Giuiliani confidently stole the show here.

Much of the debate, however, was centered on childlike arguments of who can best claim the most conservative mantel. Continuing to steer clear of George W. Bush and invoking Reagan significantly less that the recent MSNBC debate, candidates struggled to make their cases.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, straight-laced and dashing as an old Hollywood film star, submitted elegant but vague responses. He weakly mulled over the question of being called “Flip Romney” by switching the subject. In part of his answer: “We need fundamental change in Washington, we need to have leadership…We talk about benchmarks — how about benchmarks in Washington? …Lets streamline and make Washington more efficient.”

McCain received significant flack for his opposition to the Bush tax cuts and the McCain-Feingold campaign spending bill — as usual. He didn’t falter in his response, maintaining a solid, presidential air. “I opposed [the tax cuts]…because we didn’t rein in spending…We spent money like a drunken sailor.”  And then he told a pretty good joke about how comparing Congress to a drunken sailor was an insult to drunken sailors.

On one turn as questioner, Goler threw hardballs to the top three, asking Giuliani specifically about fiscal issues before 9/11 in New York, requesting that several candidates indicate which government departments they would eliminate, and insisting that former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore point fingers at those he namelessly blamed for being un-conservative.

When Chris Wallace questioned Giuiliani on his blatantly liberal social past, he named dropped The Club for Growth — who, according to Giuiliani — said he ran the most conservative government in New York in the past 50 years. He wasn’t the only candidate required to contend for a shady, un-conservative past.

Responding smartly to this accusation, McCain conjured the idea of bi-partisanship, claiming he was “reaching across the aisle and working for the good of the American people.” He also played on the most important factor of all — who is most prepared to lead in this challenge of radical Islam?

While all three of the top candidates were strong on fighting the global war on terrorism, many citizens resonate with McCain’s stance most because of his strong military experience. In the last segment of questions, moderators invented a fake on-American soil terrorism attack with the threat of another imminent.

“The key in electing the next President is to make sure that scenario doesn’t happen and the key to that is prevention,” said Romney, adding he thought we should double the size of the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and invest in enhanced interrogation techniques — not torture — as a way to cull information from prisoners.

Though he is respected for having been a POW, McCain’s argument against torture or enhanced interrogation was expected and weak. “We could never gain with torture what we would lose in world opinion,” said McCain. “The more physical pain you inflict on someone, the more they’ll tell you what they think you want…”

Noticeably absent from discussion were the significant issues of education, healthcare, oil dependence, and global warming (though it did make a brief appearance.) Such limited time with this full rack of candidates certainly forced moderators to choose questions wisely. Tiresome inquiries about abortion and notoriously liberal voting pasts from all three top candidates overwhelmed the palate.

Giuliani’s superstar moment, along with the Romney-McCain spar over campaign finance legislation and flip flopping captured the night’s most entertaining moments. McCain sustained his “straight talk” reputation, tackling tough questions head on and honestly while conveying his characteristic air of confidence tinged with condescension. Giuliani maintained an enthusiastic aura that carried him through, and Romney’s securely vague and rehearsed answers sailed him — and us, getting seasick — to the end.