GOP Debate: Much Ado About Nothing

Manchester, N.H.–There were few memorable scenes and certainly no defining moments at the Republican presidential debate at nearby St. Anselm’s College last night. 

True, Mike Huckabee brought the house down with his opening line about being from Hope, Arkansas and asking the voters to "give us another chance."  Rudy Giuliani was able to get some extra time to ponder a question about a Roman Catholic archbishop’s strong words about his abortion stand after lightning briefly knocked out the sound in the debate; the New Yorker even looked toward heaven before the sound was back on and he gave his standard answer about having to say what he truly believed.  Mitt Romney delivered an effective answer regarding his Mormon faith; candidates either passed on a question of whether they would pardon Scooter Libby by saying they needed to read the trial transcript or hinted not too subtly that they would indeed pardon the former top aide to Dick Cheney.

Most of the ten GOP hopefuls distanced themselves from George W. Bush and voiced strong criticism of the present immigration bill backed by the President and now before the Senate (where its chief proponent is John McCain, who defended it); evolution and abortion were revisted, even though the topics had been thoroughly explored in previous debates in Southern California and Columbia, South Carolina. 

And that was about it.  After two hours, no clear front-runner had emerged and there were no obvious moments for the 600-plus reporters (including about 100 from overseas) to revisit such as Giuliani’s memorable explosion at Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Tex.) in South Carolina last month over what caused 9/11.

All told, the "great debate" in New Hampshire was a great non-starter, at least as far as most of my colleagues in the press and I concluded when it was over.  And in the celebrated post-debate "spin room," candidates and their spokesman appeared to second our view as they complained about the format and who got the most airtime.

"Gov Romney did a very good job and the debate went fine," former Rep. Vin Weber (R.-Minn.), chairman of Romney’s policy committee told me, "My only complaint was that the format was very frustrating."

Former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee, who appears to draw larger crowds of reporters around him at each post-debate conclave, seconded Weber.  In his words, "Three candidates dominated the time format.  We heard a lot about evolution and Iraq, but not about high gas prices and why two kids ever sixty seconds are dropping out of high school." 

"The network [CNN] did favor the three front-runners," echoed former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.  Like Huckabee, Gilmore told me that "central issues such as health care, on which I have definite views" were not addressed.

(When I shared these criticisms with moderator Wolf Blitzer after the debate and resultant "spin-doctoring," the veteran CNN reporter told me: "Look, we tried to spread out the questions evenly among all the candidates but the fact is that the public is most interested in the three front-running contenders.)

Inevitably, post-debate assessment of how the Republicans did was matched in volume with discussion of "the man who wasn’t there" — Fred Thompson.  But the still-unannounced Republican hopeful was there — as a post-debate commentator on Fox News! 

There will be more debates, of course, with Republicans again squaring off at Howard University in Washington DC and later back to South Carolina for an exchange with questions coming from the Internet.  When the history of the debates leading up to the choice of a Republican nominee in ’08 is written, it may be that one or more of these exchanges  played a pivotal role in propelling one of the candidates to the front of the pack. One thing seems certain at this point:  last night’s debate won’t be one of them. 

For all the criticism Rudy Giuliani’s pro-choice stand on abortion has taken — most recently, from Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback in the debate at St. Anselm’s College here last night — the former New York mayor’s campaign team made it clear they have no intention of trying to change or even water down the Republican Party’s strong pro-life language in its platform if their man is nominated for president next year.

"I don’t think so it all," Giuliani pollster Ed Goaes told me after the debate, when I asked if the Giuliani camp would try to amend the pro-life stand that has been included in the party manifesto since 1980.  Another Giuliani campaigner who was here last night, former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, agreed and said "I don’t think anyone’s even thought about [changing the platform]."

Goeas did, however, cite his own polls that showed while 90% of likely Republican voters call themselves conservative and  70% say they are pro-life, only 20% say that the abortion issue is the single issue they are most concerned about.  "Most Republican voters are looking at a multitude of issues and I believe they will turn out to vote," added Goeas.