There is a certain familiarity to the presidential debates — Mike Huckabee will be funny, Ron Paul will be outrageous, John McCain will be knowledgeable on foreign policy and Rudy Giuliani will be telling you a lot about New York City. And yet there are always surprises and moments which tell you more than you knew about the candidates.
McCain was certainly the pleasant surprise of the evening. Just when his political obituary has been written he turns in a good natured, sober and informed performance. On foreign policy he essentially put Governor Mitt Romney in his place — telling him the surge was working, not just apparently so” — giving the most authoritative answer on Iran of the contenders. His problems however are clear — with each moment spent on rehashing the immigration debate he loses votes and momentum and his refusal to sign the tax pledge and “stand on his record” reminds voters he opposed the Bush tax cuts. But on this night viewers could be gratified he is in the Senate and in the race for he raises the level of debate and reminds voters of the benefits of experience.
Romney’s performance raised two key question marks for his candidacy: he lacks a personal touch and is shaky on foreign policy. As to the first, when the military dad in the diner asked for an apology from Romney for comparing his son’s work on the campaign to his own son’s service Romney not only failed to offer his apology but seemed indifferent to the questioner. We like smart presidents but we also like empathetic ones who relate to people as people and Romney needs to show he has a heart and not just a brain. As for foreign policy, the week before the great surge debate, he seemed oddly focused on the Democrats’ goal –how quickly to get out — without the same dogged concern shown by McCain for getting it “right” — as best we can — before we leave. Romney has been on quite a roll in the polls lately but he did not help himself in this outing.
Giuliani wins the “best debater” award, if not the debate. By that I mean he has perfected the ability to weave his major themes — executive competence, combatant against the Democrats and liberal media, and fiscal conservative into almost any answer. He parried questions on guns — with a bow to states’ rights — and immigration but his best moment may have been when asked about family values. In the old days a question in essence asking why his family was not as solid as an opponents’ might have gotten Giuliani’s dander up. But not last night. He gave the best answer in the calmest tone he could — judge me on my record where I have never let the people down. It may not be enough for those who simply will not vote for a twice divorced president but Giuliani is banking that number is small and his poise and calm impressed those whose votes he still has a shot at.
Huckabee got to bash Ron Paul which is always good for TV ratings and for a candidate’s prospects. However, his inability to come up with any answer to the hypothetical on Iran pointed to the limits of his candidacy. Republican voters are likely unwilling in a time of war and international danger to hand over the presidency to someone lacking experience and a firm understanding of our challenges.
And Fred Thompson? He lost three times. First, Fergus Cullen in the introduction had a chance to chide him, although not by name, for opting for the 30 second ad. Second, each of the candidates got their licks in with a joke at his expense. Third, at no point in the debate did there seem a moment where his view or judgment was sorely missed. There was plenty of expertise, humor and conservative ideas. It is hard to see what niche he will fill.
So does the debate change anything? Perhaps not since frontrunner Giuliani made no gaffes and performed solidly. But in a fleeting moment or two you could imagine New Hampshire voters giving McCain a second look and wondering if Romney is someone they could warm to. In that sense, the race may have changed just a bit.
Thompson on Leno
Fred Thompson appeared on Jay Leno Tonight Show rather than the New Hampshire debate. The monologue pointed out the dilemma for Thompson. When Jay asked rhetorically who won the debate and answered Thompson, one’s reaction was “no he didn’t.” Jay’s joke that Thompson was comfortable returning to NBC where he had experience with disasters only reinforced his rivals point that Thompson was hiding out in the comfort of a TV studio.
The inanity of the opening segment of home visits by Jay further served to put a Thompson choice in an unflattering light. Whatever the shortcomings of the debate it was appropriately serious to the task at hand — selecting the party’s nominee. Thompson acknowledged as much, joking that the preceding segment reminded him he was “glad to get out of television.” When Thompson soon after declared “I’m running for President” –rather than say he’d declare the next day — it stuck at least this writer as an odd setting for such a momentous step.
He promised that he had not meant any disrespect to New Hampshire voters. Although he took a swipe at the current debate format his communications director Todd Harris responded to an email inquiry that he had not meant to suggest that he would not participate in the debates as currently styled.
He then gave his sober take on Iraq. He said that he believed we were right to go to war and that getting the “job done” amounted to ensuring Iraqis’ security to vote in elections and to enjoy a “free life.” Those despairing of our role as guarantor of Iraqi democracy were likely not pleased. He offered standard fare about the threat of Iran.
And then he was off to Iowa. In appearance he was strikingly thinner than when he last visited and perhaps more serious in tone. Voters will now get to decide if he is the candidate they are looking for or whether he will be just another also ran.