This was a weekend for the politically-addicted: it provided plenty to keep them busy. Three debates gave voters plenty of time to mull the choices, think of alternatives and consider who is on the upswing and the downswing and why. All this in contention with the football playoffs.
Saturday featured back to back debates hosted by Charlie Gibson. These pages have been duly critical of many moderators and MSM host but ABC and Gibson deserve credit for asking substantive questions and staying out the way. CNN should take note: this is how a professional debate runs.
The most noteworthy aspect of the GOP debate was the near evisceration of Mitt Romney. It is no easy task to lose an immigration debate to John McCain but he managed to do so. He was also on the receiving end of barbs from McCain about his negative ad barrage (“You can spend your whole fortune on those attack ads but that doesn’t make it true.”) and his flip flops (“when you have so many positions, its easy [to get misquoted]”). But some of the damage was self-inflicted. Declaring that “I like mandates” in a GOP debate is not likely to rally the conservative base. If his task was to make up ground on McCain who now leads in New Hampshire polls, he did not succeed.
For McCain he had to avoid error or losing his temper, which he did. While his barbs were sharp his tone was measured. Moreover, he reiterated his selling points: foreign policy credentials and his role in fighting pork barrel spending. Both are winning issues in New Hampshire.
The other big winner was Fred Thompson. He launched a few barbs of his own at Romney on healthcare mandates and at others on amnesty. Although he will never be aggressive in these contexts he did adhere to the conservative message: low taxes, border security, free markets, and sobriety in foreign policy. Should conservatives be looking for a unifying alternative he may have his opportunity to make his stand in South Carolina and finally give the top contenders a good run for their money.
Rudy Giuliani also gave an entirely solid performance, stressing his foreign policy views and his free market healthcare proposals. On immigration he stayed clear of the McCain-Romney brawl and emphasized border security, an employer verification system and immediate deportation of those who have committed crimes. Whether he can lie in wait for much longer remains to be seen, but as foes prove themselves not up to the task he will make his stand in Florida.
Mike Huckabee, fresh from his Iowa win, appeared to have greater command of his foreign policy facts and offered a more stalwart position on illegal immigration. New Hampshire is not essential to his plans but he did nothing to harm his chances as he looks to South Carolina.
As for Ron Paul, ABC could not find good reason to exclude him so once again he occupied room and time, providing only an opportunity for serious contenders to whack his foreign policy notions.
Compared to the GOP feisty encounter the Democrats appeared strangely subdued. Hillary Clinton struggled to maintain a sunny exterior even while Barak Obama and John Edwards teamed up to dispute that she could be a “change agent” too. At one point the “screech” returned, at another she showed a flash of humor when asked if it bothered her that voters seemed to think Obama was more likeable: “Well, that hurts my feelings. (laughter) But I’ll try to go on. (more laughter) I think he’s likeable, but I don’t think I’m that bad.” But her central dilemma remained: how to make progress against Obama without providing proof that she is a divisive figure. She made little headway.
Obama has polished his delivery and did not flinch when Hillary reeled off a list of supposed policy reversals. His argument that words matter because they inspire encapsulated his advantage over Hillary: he taps into liberal idealism.
John Edwards’ refrain is nothing if not unchanging: he will take on the “special interests” and won’t compromise with insurance companies and other powerful interests (which do not include trial lawyers apparently). His tactic was clear: defend Barak Obama against the “forces of the status quo” (read: Hillary) in an effort to jettison Hillary off the Democratic island and get into a dual with Obama. Although on pure debating points he may have given the strongest performance of the three, his populist appeal will likely not play as successfully as it did in Iowa so it is hard to imagine a path to the nomination for him.
As for Bill Richardson he was a welcome source of humor, remarking that he has seen “more civil hostage negotiations” and confessing he flubbed an answer in an earlier debate praising conservative Supreme Court Justice Byron White.
Whether exhausted from the grueling pace of campaigning or wary of appearing too aggressive just before the election Sunday’s GOP debate was mild and a bit dull. Instead of aggressive barbs what we saw were candidate trying to reassure their own supporters, avoid errors and – in the case of many of the candidates – ever so gently help their rivals at Romney’s expense.
McCain showed none of the willingness from Saturday night or desire to tweak Romney. He rebuffed multiple offers to criticize his rival. With several polls showing him in the lead he chose to tout his military experience and appeal to Independents –especially in his plea to “sit down together” to work on border security and immigration reform.
Romney was the most improved from Saturday but failed to deliver any body blows to McCain on immigration, never quite drawing the stark contrast he needed to gain ground in the race. He spent considerable time reminding viewers of his business background and acumen, which had it been the focus of his campaign all along might have helped distinguish himself from the field.
Thompson took an opportunity to chide Romney whenever possible — inquiring whether that wasn’t Ted Kennedy at the signing ceremony for his healthcare bill and looking askance at his new “change” theme. Indeed Thompson ahs the most to gain if Romney falters on Tuesday. He once again demonstrated his command on social security and gave a sober assessment of our foreign policy challenges.
Giuliani enjoyed his second good outing in a row. He, like Thompson, threw cold water on Romney’s new “change” mantra and effectively described his own foreign policy and homeland security experience which he contended goes well beyond his role on 9-11.
Huckabee may have had the rockiest time, getting pinned down on his tax increases and appearing shaky on national security. (Did he really want to close Guantanamo because the conditions were too good?) Getting drawn into a tit for tat with Romney likely did neither any good.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the aggressive questioning of Fox moderator Chris Wallace who asked Romney why he ran so many negative ads and whether Giuliani had “too much baggage.” Fox also seemed to lend McCain a helping hand by flashing Romney’s 2005 quote in favor of immigration reform on the screen just when McCain was contending that Romney’s position had changed. So if there is any doubt that Fox is “soft” on Republican that notion was put to rest.
So Tuesday’s election is teed up. The winner between McCain and Romney goes on with new momentum and the loser may be done for. In the wings wait Huckabee, Giuliani and Thompson ready for the races which will shortly follow in Michigan and South Carolina. The race has only just begun.