Republicans' Worst Debate Yet

Wednesday’s debate sponsored by the Des Monies Register was full of surprises. It proved: 1) There can be a worse debate than the Democrat infested CNN/YouTube debate; 2) Fred Thompson can in fact command the stage and delight an audience; and 3) Ron Paul is not the nuttiest participant at a GOP debate this year.

Carolyn Washburn, editor of the Des Moines Register, was the alleged moderator. We knew we were in for a rough afternoon when she declared up front that she wasn’t going to bother much with Iraq and immigration. No reason to discuss two of the issues conservatives care most about and one of which is the source of intense conflict between the candidates, right? It got worse from there. Her furrowed brow questions on the national debt (which is less than 1% of GDP, we would not know from listening to her) and her plea to explore what “sacrifices” Americans need to make belied her liberal reference point. More so, however, her attempt to limit responses (in the tone of an annoyed school marm) to 30 or 60 seconds, her march down the row of speakers without encouraging any interaction, her barbed comment to Duncan Hunter (snidely remarking that his plans for the first year in office seemed like an awful lot to do) and the climax of the silliness,  her demand that each contender recite a  New Year’s resolution (for his opponents no less), reduced the entire affair to the level of farce. The decision to show poorly lit and edited video clips of each candidate speaking to the Des Moines Register editorial Board seemed nonsensical if not downright strange.

She did get her comeuppance when Fred Thompson refused to raise his hand and provide and “yes” or “no” answer to her question on the origins and seriousness of global warming. Asked if he could have time to explain, she snippily replied he could not. He then sternly told her that he wouldn’t be playing this game. The debate then lapsed into a moment of chaos as the contenders interrupted one another. Clearly peeved that her “class” had gotten out of control she wrangled them back to order but the illusion of control had been broken.

However, for Thompson supporters it was a welcomed sign that he had emerged from his campaign doldrums. Indeed his entire performance — filled with mature reminders on entitlements, national defense, and removing judges from the business of dabbling in social policy was plainly his best yet. His amusing barbs directed at Romney, wishing he was in Romney’s tax situation and pointing out what a good actor Romney had become, struck just the right note. He left commentators and perhaps rivals scratching their heads in wonder as to where this Fred Thompson had been since entering the race. He may now have the opportunity to finish “in the money” in Iowa and live to fight on in South Carolina and the rest of the primaries.

In the Mitt Romney vs. Mike Huckabee contest, which is of course where the Iowa action is, there was very little excitement and virtually no conflict. Given the moderator’s refusal to focus on a prime source of dispute (immigration) the two were left to make short, canned speeches without addressing one another. Given Huckabee’s frontrunner status currently in Iowa this worked to his advantage. Certainly he did nothing to damage his prospects. His appeals on education and on healthcare and his plea for the “ordinary guy” stuck closely to his populist themes. Romney had arguably his best debate so far, appearing confident and well versed particularly on education, but without an opening to confront Huckabee it was a largely missed opportunity.

For Rudy Giuliani it was a solid outing as he delivered his message of fiscal conservatism and leadership and calmly responded to the moderator’s huffy inquiries about New York City accounting practices. Using his trademark humor, he offered that no one had a more “transparent” life than he. However, since foreign policy was entirely ignored neither he nor John McCain had much opportunity to shine.

McCain, with little hope of placing in the top tier in Iowa, made an impressive appeal to consider his foreign policy credentials and seemed to delight in taking a swipe at agricultural subsidies. He may have figures that if you are going to lose, you might do so in style and impress viewers from other states with your “maverick” ways.

But it was the presence of Alan Keyes, without an organized campaign and with no level of support in Iowa, who provided the exclamation point on the afternoon. Having let him in to the debate, the Des Moines Register host then had to deal with him — and his insistence on not being skipped in questioning and his longwinded, irrelevant speechifying. By comparison, Ron Paul was the model of decorum and common sense.

So if we thought after the CNN YouTube carnival things could not get worse, we were wrong. Unfortunately, the Republican voters of Iowa and elsewhere were deprived of an opportunity to see skilled candidates engage each other on issues that really matter. In that regard, everyone lost.