The GOP contenders, at least the official ones, gathered in Des Moines for their latest presidential debate. Fred Thompson who has not yet declared did not participate.
As we have in the past, we have our list of winners and losers and most memorable moments.
Biggest Punching Bag: Barack Obama. Each of the candidates took turns explaining why his passive aggressive approach to national security is naïve and dangerous. Mitt Romney dubbed it “Jane Fonda to Dr, Strangelove.” There was general agreement among the top three contenders that it is not a good idea to announce plans to unilaterally invade Pakistan, go on a meet your favorite despot tour, or rule out use of nuclear weapons.
Second place goes to John Edwards. Rudy Giuliani used him as a helpful foil to make sure everyone understands that raising capital gains taxes won’t in fact bring in more revenue and will be terrible for our economy.
Not Going Away Anytime Soon: John McCain is best when he talks about national security and his commitment to victory in Iraq. He is a bit dour at times but it is fitting when talking about the high stakes and the huge military as well as political challenge. His poll number is now down to 8% in Iowa, but his role in the debate and in the race may be to force other candidates to match his determination on Iraq.
And Let Me Tell You About New York: Whether bridges or taxes or crime or his theory of democracy (He argues that there aren’t any civil rights if you are afraid to go out of your home.) Rudy Giuliani finds a way to remind voters of his experience in running New York. It would be incorrect to saying he is running on the legacy of 9-11 but I think it is very accurate to say he is running as chief executive of New York and his record of cleaning up the messes — fiscal, criminal, spending — he found there.
Perhaps We Should Let Them Ask All The Questions: The video questions from voters on the candidates’ biggest mistake and whether Dick Cheney has too much power were interesting and led to some of the best debate moments. On their mistakes, it gave McCain an opportunity to speak in heartfelt terms about his capture in Vietnam, Rudy the chance to make a joke (he couldn’t list all his mistakes in 30 seconds) and Romney the opening to talk about his abortion views. Here he may not have helped himself, saying it was “just wrong” to run on a pro-choice platform in 2002 when he was “deeply opposed to abortion.” Although he gets points for candor it may raise questions anew as to whether he was being forthright when he ran on a pro-choice platform in 2002.
There Is A Reason They Are In Front: The top three contenders who participated do stand out from the pack. Their command of the facts, their use of humor and their force of personality give voters a sense they are credible contenders. You might not like all of them in the Oval office but you can imagine them in the presidency. The others? Not so much.
Losers: Pundits who say the Republican field is weak or unimpressive would be at the top of my list. As noted, all three of the top candidates turned in solid performances. Each in small ways made clear they are not running as President Bush and each is making strides in positioning themselves as someone who understands conservatives, and all Americans, frustrations with the current administration.
Winners: Any frontrunner looks at debates as fraught with peril. Will someone else breakthrough? Will he make a stumble? Since that didn’t happen here Rudy has to come away pleased. Romney also can breathe a sigh of relief that none of his Ames straw poll challengers (which do not include McCain or Giuliani) seemed to knock him off the perch as frontrunner in that contest, which is now only days away. He also has become more comfortable over time in these settings. These debates aren’t easy and he, like the others, have benefited from practice.
Maybe He Should Have Joined In: Did Fred Thompson benefit from not being there? With credible candidates on stage gaining more experience with each debate there is a good argument that Thompson would have done well to get in sooner. He will have his work cut out for him as he enters the race and will have to go toe to toe with at least three very good debaters. If rumors of a September 5 entry date are correct we won’t have to wait too much longer to see how he will stack up against the competition.
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