Florida Debate is Best So Far

It is fashionable among conservatives, aided by the liberal media, to decry the lack of talent in the GOP field and to bemoan the flaws in each candidate. But in Florida last night the viewers, at least those not watching the decisive Red Sox-Indian game, got treated to the best debate so far and a demonstration by the top tier contenders that Hillary Clinton may not have a cake walk in November.

Fred Thompson would surely get the most improved award. He was more alert, focused and engaged than in his previous outing. He did choose to take a risky route of advocating entitlement reductions which should please the Beltway pundit crowd, but may not be well received by seniors who vote in large numbers in Iowa and Florida. Nevertheless, he said he was going to be bold when he entered the race and this is the first indication he intends to make good on his promise. He closing remark on the laziness label reminded viewers that he has accomplishments and has run successful races against long odds before.

Rudy Giuliani, who spent Saturday at the Family Research Council(FRC) attempting to narrow the gap with social conservatives ( with promises to keep the Hyde Amendment and the Partial Birth abortion ban in place — steps advocated in these columns– welcomed by conservatives), used Sunday night to remind Republicans why there are few better at bashing Hillary (“America can’t afford you, Hillary”), standing up for conservative ideas like school choice in the face of liberal bureaucrats (“I care about kids more”) and defending a Ronald Reagan foreign policy of military strength.

As for John McCain, his crack that he missed Woodstock because “he was tied up” reminds Republicans why, if not their choice for President, he is sure fun to have around in the presidential race and the Senate. He received the only standing ovation so far in the debate series. And for those still looking for a fiscal conservative standard bearer, his answers on healthcare and spending were focused and showed he is not simply riding on his foreign policy credentials. He also did attack Romney, a riposte unreturned to the surprise of many, for “fooling” people about Romney’s record. McCain may not make it to the top, but others should be on guard when he is around.

Mitt Romney avoided any “ask the lawyers’ moments. He chose not to fully respond to McCain and perhaps as a result seemed to lack the moxie of McCain and Giuliani. Nevertheless, he made his pitch as a well rounded conservative with strong answers on marriage and the ill fated Clinton peace dividend. More importantly, he seemed eager to reintroduce himself as the successful businessman and rescuer of the Olympics, a resume he has to date not emphasized but which is unique and impressive.

Mike Huckabee unfortunately fell victim to the GOP’s unwillingness to thin out the debate field. While his folksy appeal and disinclination to join the jousting between the top contenders reminded viewers why they liked him, his time was limited because of some felt need to give time to the likes of Ron Paul for his umpteenth rant on American foreign policy and to others who quite frankly have not a prayer of winning. After Saturday’s showing at the FRC Huckabee deserves more time.

Looking at the field as a whole, and contrary to the suggestions of the MSM it’s easy to be impressed rather than chagrined by Sunday’s showing . There are four or five articulate and well spoken candidates who intend to get the Republican Party back on a track of fiscal responsibility and to adhere to a traditionally conservative foreign policy of military strength and hard headed realism about our foes.

On education and healthcare the candidates are not about to cede the floor to Hillary and instead offer their own proposals based on free markets and individual choice. Although little time was spent on immigration, the top contenders (even a chastened McCain) seem committed to pursuing border security first. Moreover, they are clear what they are against: bigger government, high taxes, international timidity and social experimentation through judicial activism. So rather than be glum, conservatives should cheer up. There are solid choices and capable opponents who stand between Hillary and the Oval office.