Republican Debates Offer Little Foresight

Last night’s Florida debate came at a crucial point in the Republican presidential primary race. In Florida John McCain and Mitt Romney are neck and neck for first, Rudy Giuliani has plunged to third in close proximity to Mike Huckabee.  But the debate came after over a quarter million votes had already been cast in absentee and early voting so its impact is uncertain.

Although the candidates must realize it is do or die time, the debate had few fireworks and virtually no moments of conflict among the candidates. For those at the top of the heap –Romney and McCain — that helped avoid debate troubles that had hurt them in other states.

McCain’s appeal has always been on national security and in a state where veterans make up 15% of the population his steadfast support for the Iraq Surge is his greatest asset. His reminder of his role in reversing Iraq policy was familiar, but he also forcefully came out in favor of tax cuts. No rival directly challenged him on his tax record and he was never asked about immigration so the evening was a comfortable one for him. He made an effort to smooth the rough edges of his personality, first by joking that his new supporter Sylvester Stallone would take on Huckabee’s Chuck Norris and later praising Giuliani’s 9-11 performance. As a result, McCain emerged unscathed.

Romney had perhaps his best debate performance, largely because his opponents avoided attacking him. He was at his best when speaking on economics and he successfully ducked a question from Giuliani on his position on a national catastrophic insurance fund. He forcefully rebuffed the moderator’s inquiries about how much of his personal fortune he has spent on the campaign. He too should be pleased that voters saw a confident, economically literate candidate.

Giuliani gave solid answers on the economy as well but had his best moments when explaining he supported the Iraq war when it was unpopular and supported it as public opinion has shifted. The former mayor bragged (as did his campaign later) that the New York Times hated him. (This of course, on the same night the NYT announced its endorsement of McCain).  Asked about his falling poll numbers, Giuliani gamely joked that he had lulled his opponents into a state of confidence and would come from behind in the polls to win.

As for Huckabee, it soon became apparent that he is running hard — for McCain’s VP. He defended McCain on the question as to whether he was too old and used his question to go after Romney’s gun rights record as Massachusetts governor. Otherwise, he was a minor figure in the debate, offering up notions like a highway project to stimulate the economy that are unlikely to broaden his appeal with the GOP electorate.

It is doubtful then that the debate will change the course of the race. The most recent polling is mixed; some show McCain narrowly up and others have Romney in the lead. All are within the margin of error. Giuliani remains in third ahead of Huckabee, but his campaign points to his rock-star like popularity and huge crowds.

Although the debate was uneventful, the results on Tuesday almost certainly will change the course of the race and possibly determine the nomination. Should Giuliani lose it is hard to imagine he would remain viable. By contrast, a solid win by McCain might seal the nomination and crown him the undisputed frontrunner heading into Super Tuesday where he already leads in California, New Jersey and New York polls.

If Romney emerges victorious, February 5 is sure to be a donnybrook with McCain and Huckabee still in the hunt. And for those who love a novel twist — the very real prospect of a brokered convention still exists.