Columbia, S.C.–Less than two hours after the second presidential debate among the Republican Presidential hopefuls this evening, the verdict among state GOP chairmen and other members of the Republican National Committee who attended the event was that Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee gained the most. Moreover, almost to a person, the party leaders condemned the remarks from Texas Rep. Ron Paul suggesting that U.S. foreign policy rather than terrorists caused the 9/11 attack.
As RNC members gathered at the downtown Marriott Hotel for debate post-mortem, there was mounting discussion of a petition by the GOP committee denouncing Paul and requesting that the Texas lawmaker be disinvited to future presidential forums.
“Rudy probably gained because of the way he answered that question,” Louisiana State Chairman Roger F. Villere, Jr., told me, referring to the former New York Mayor’s sharp attack on Paul’s remark about U.S. policy toward foreign countries causing 9/11 as an “absurd statement.” In the opinion of Villere (who is neutral in the presidential race, “Paul exploded.”
Michigan State Chairman Saul Anuzis, who is also neutral in the ’08 race, agreed. “Nobody won, but Giuliani did the best and Romney and McCain held their own. Huckabee was tighter, more specific in his remarks than in the last debate. He did much better.
“Outrageous” was how Anuzis characterized Paul’s controversial statement about 9/11. The Water Wonderland Party leader promised not to invite the Texan to coming party forums for presidential candidates in his state because, in his words, “Paul is not a Republican candidate after what he said tonight.”
“If I were judging contestants on ‘American Idol””, Anuzis said, “I would say Paul, [former Virginia Gov. James] Gilmore, and either [Colorado Rep. Tom] Tancredo or [former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy] Thompson are the next to go.”
“Mitt Romney held his own, but Rudy Giuliani showed the fire in his belly!” exclaimed recently-elected Rhode Island State Chairman Giovanni Cicione, who is also neutral in the race.
Even open Romney supporters in the ranks of the party leadership offered praise for Giuliani’s performance or called the debate a draw. As South Carolina’s National Committeewoman Cindy Costa, a vigorous Romney backer told me, “Rudy took advantage of a good opportunity.” Lynn Windel, Oklahoma’s National Committeeman, said of his favorite candidate: “Mitt Romney didn’t help himself or hurt himself. He looked presidential and Reaganesque.” A close Romney adviser, Massachusetts Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman, summarized the debate as “No runs, no hits, no errors.”
Huckabee’s Home Run
In praising Giuliani and condemning Ron Paul, the same RNC members almost universally hailed Mike Huckabee’s performance and agreed that the former Arkansas governor gained from the Fox News-run forum.
“That line about John Edwards at the beauty shop was hilarious!” exclaimed Louisiana Republican National Committeeman Ross Little, Jr., recalling Huckabee’s quip government is spending more than “[Democratic presidential hopeful] John Edwards in a beauty shop, which drew a prolonged ovation from the studio audience. “Huckabee had a great night.”
Rhode Island’s Cicione called the man from Arkansas “the sleeper.” Cicione said “I expected nothing from Huckabee and saw he was right on his game. He did a fine job.”
“A pleasant surprise,” said West Virginia State Chairman Doug McKinney of Huckabee’s debate performance.
The high marks for Huckabee’s performance in Columbia concluded a good week for the second most-famous son of Hope, Arkansas. In both her column and an appearance on NBC-TV’s “Chris Matthews Show” last week, nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker said that Huckabee had scored impressively in the first debate at the Reagan Library. Huckabee drew swatches of publicity campaigning in South Carolina this weekend, where he was accompanied by Iris and Mike Campbell — widow and son of the state’s revered late Gov. Carroll Campbell.