The Republican candidates gathered in Florida for yet another debate. As many of us suspected and dreaded the YouTube debate was at times annoying, silly and downrigtht frustrating. The “reject reel” and the guitar strumming introductory video set the scene.
When we got to real questions we saw why Governor Mike Huckabee is soaring in the Iowa polls, McCain has made a comeback (but may not win a primary), Mitt Romney is not a complete candidate, Rudy Giuliani has a reputation as a scrappy fighter and Fred Thompson has such promise but has disappointed so many conservatives.
For Huckabee this was the debate he needed to cement his image as an articulate, utterly engaging social conservative. He did so. He played some defense- fending off accusations about his tax record — but again and again displayed his charm and wit. Whether talking about the Bible or welcoming support from Log Cabin Republicans (but telling them he wouldn’t change his views on marriage) he reinforced his pitch as a thoughtful but steadfast social conservative.
As for McCain, his appeal on torture and insistence that immigration reform did not include amnesty will win few adherents in the GOP primaries and caucuses. However, he once again filled the role of the seasoned, mature foreign policy guru. While Romney’s position on waterboarding and torture (against the latter, won’t detail whether the former is in fact torture) is closer to the base’s views he seemed to wither before McCain rebuttal. His reminders of his role in the Iraq debate, indictment of Ron Paul’s isolationism, and vigilance on spending were all crowd pleasers. When he explained why it is a bad idea to revise “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” he spoke with authority. But his “Let us win, let us win” exhortation on Iraq was the clearest indication that his success may depend on whether the voters’ gratitude for his steadfastness on Iraq gets translated into actual votes.
Romney remains as a candidate and a debate a mixed bag. He started off strongly, defending his position on immigration and going after Giuliani on the “sanctuary cities” issue. Solid answers followed on spending and on his evolution on abortion. (“I was wrong” is always a refreshing answer from a politician.) However, as the debate wore on Romney seemed to lose his footing. He conceded Giuliani was great on crime and pled to not being in a lead role in crime himself in Massachusetts. He stumbled when asked if the Bible is literally true – seemingly taken aback and unable to talk with ease as Huckabee (and remarkably Giuliani) did. He was trapped and evasive on whether he had changed his view that “he looks forward to the day when gays can serve openly” in the military and he espoused the view that the Confederate flag is “divisive” and said it was a good idea not to display it.
Giuliani followed the opposite course from Romney: starting shakily but warming up. His jibe about Romney’s “Sanctuary Mansion” was clever but drew a mixed reaction. However, he gave a succinct and, at least for now, credible answer to allegations concerning use of city money to pay for security while seeing his then romantic interest (now wife Judith Nathan): he had 24-hr protection because people wanted to kill him and knew nothing about the accounting practices. He gave a heartfelt answer about how he views the Bible and perhaps put at ease some social conservatives by explaining that if Roe v. Wade were reversed because it was poorly reasoned the states should control abortion. He also voiced support for measures like parental notification. (His views seemed barely distinguishable from Thompson.) When talking about foreign policy, his pre-9-11 record and his plans to control spending he appeared in command.
Finally, Thompson remains the most curious and in some ways frustrating candidate. He gave answers on foreign policy, Second Amendment rights, spending, social security and abortion which in substance would please most conservatives but his manner is perhaps too laid back and his delivery too soft to project himself as a real contender for the top spot. When he joked that he was glad a Dick Cheney video character wasn’t supposed to be him, the thought crossed many viewers’ minds no doubt that perhaps the vice presidency was an ideal place for him.
So on balance, Huckabee likely helped himself the most and with a mixed performance by Romney stands in excellent shape heading into the Iowa caucus (with an Iowa debate in December as a final chance to make his pitch). Giuliani suffered no permanent wounds while Thompson made no lasting impact. As for the YouTube format, we can only hope the candidates have the intestinal fortitude to say “no thanks” to the next one.