Republican Debate Spotlights

Amid unnerving CNN audio glitches, a lightning-inducing answer on abortion, and a cramped stage of candidates just one shy of a football team, Rudy Giuliani managed to elevate his status as the Republican frontrunner in last night’s presidential debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.

One wonders, however, whether Sen. Fred Thompson’s exclusive Fox News interview immediately following the debate sent more Republicans scurrying to click on his newly unveiled website than Rudy’s. If the latter, surge protectors were definitely in order. Indeed, the mid-sentence lightning strike during Rudy’s answer to an abortion question produced one of the more memorable moments of the evening.

With lightning striking, Giuliani mugged for the camera and said, “For someone who went to parochial schools all his life, this is a very frightening thing that’s happening right now.”

Still, others managed to show flashes of strength as well. In one of the more moving moments of the night, Sen. John McCain stood to answer a question from a woman whose Marine brother was killed in the War on Terror. His cracking cadence added to the sincerity of his message and displayed a level of warmth that revealed what most voters already know: the military touches McCain to his marrow.

Yet the strength of McCain’s warrior ethos aside, the Arizona senator spent much of the night fending off a barrage of attacks over his support and sponsorship of the much-maligned immigration bill, a measure everyone on stage save McCain believed amounts to amnesty. In short, the peaks and valleys of McCain’s performance canceled one another out, likely rendering negligible if any gains.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign had to be troubled by the negative communicative current surging through Wolf Blitzer’s questions as well other candidates’ responses over charges that Romney is a “flip-flopper.” One senses that if the Romney campaign doesn’t soon find a way to short circuit such arguments that campaign commercials morphing Romney into Sen. John Kerry won’t be too far behind. Still, Romney’s squeaky clean personal life, presidential appearance, and often pitch-perfect responses will continue to make him a serious threat down the stretch.

But the most electric energy in the debate hall was reserved by the man not on stage, Sen. Fred Thompson. In a bit of brilliant tactical maneuvering, Team Thompson scheduled their candidate to appear with Sean Hannity to offer post-debate analysis from the comfort of the Fox News studios. Not only did this in effect make Thompson a “participant” in the debate, it allowed him to contrast himself against the candidates and their responses without the strictures of time limits or spirited counterattacks from rival candidates. Better still for Thompson, his appearance allowed him to unveil his campaign’s exploratory website, thereby stoking further excitement about his impending candidacy.

Nevertheless, Thompson’s campaign runs the risk of inflating expectations, and the constant comparisons to Ronald Reagan are a double edged sword. If he waits to jump in the race beyond the much-rumored Fourth of July entry his candidacy could suffer.

One candidate who didn’t suffer last night was pastor-turned-Governor Mike Huckabee. If Huckabee’s resemble his political speaking style his parishioners remain perky in their pews. Canned lines such as his opening self-introduction wherein he announced he was from Hope, Arkansas, but begged the audience to “give us a second chance” continue to crackle. [Note to Joel Osteen and Rick Warren: watch your back!]

But in the end, the night belonged to Rudy. If, as the conventional political wisdom holds, a candidate’s answers reveal his confidence level, then Rudy Giuliani clearly believes he has the luxury of beginning general election sparring with Sen. Hillary Clinton. Question after question, time and again, Rudy brought the attack straight to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. The Giuliani camp is clearly banking on “the pragmatism factor”; namely, advancing the argument that Rudy would be the most formidable candidate in the general election against Hillary.

Whether the Giuliani strategy prevails remains to be seen. His liberal position on social issues may zap his chances yet.