. . . until the New Hampshire primary.
Who won last night's Republican debate?
McCain didn't. In the first half of the debate, he looked like something that had been shot, stuffed and hung on the wall at the Elks Club. Maybe his makeup was bad, or maybe he was just nervous, but he didn't project strength, vision or competence. He was tied down to his support of the Iraq war and the "surge" strategy, but even he looked like he didn't believe in it anymore. He actually repeated the same drunken sailor joke he used in the last debate. He defended the virtues of bipartisanship, which is a great stance to take in a general election, but not so great as a way to woo die-hard Republican primary voters. He did recover himself in the second half, rising nicely to the challenge of whether the U.S. ought to torture suspected terrorists. He defended McCain/Feingold and actually said that money had corrupted the GOP. And he got a roar of approval from the crowd when he responded wearily to the inevitable question about the confederate flag and then suggested, firmly, that it was time to give the issue a rest. Still, it was not enough. McCain has got to start showing up for all of these debates, not just half of them.
Hunter didn't. He practically drooled on himself when answering the question about what he would do if U.S. shopping centers were attacked by suicide bombers. He gleefully misstated the premise of the question as what he would do if nuclear weapons were used in such attacks, and then proceeded to describe how he would personally call Jack Bauer and torture the suspects and nuke Africa. I couldn't see behind the podium, but I'm certain he had an erection. Presumably he wanted to project strength, but he wound up seeming unhinged.
Giuliani didn't. He was doing fairly well--calling the Democrats' plan to get out of Iraq a "timetable for retreat," and handling the abortion questions much better that last time--until Ron Paul suggested that just maybe U.S. policies in the Middle East had something to do with motivating the 9/11 terrorists. Rudy went borderline apoplectic about this and took off after poor little Ron Paul like a rabid badger. It's a pretty basic rule of debate that you don't pick fights down; you can only hurt yourself. That's what he did. He overplayed his 9/11 hero cred and wound up looking like a bully--and not a very bright one at that.
Brownback didn't. His performance was improved, and he had a nice set piece about how the sainted Ronald Reagan would pull people together to win the war in Iraq and do something about immigration. His answer to the night's toughest abortion question--what do you say to a woman who was impregnated by a rapist?--was clear but compassionate, and obviously heartfelt. He actually got choked up, which will no doubt play well with the right-to-lifers. Nevertheless, the moderators largely ignored him; fairly or unfairly, the man didn't get a chance to make more of an impression.
Paul didn't, though as noted above, he probably benefited from having Rudy the Rabid charge after him. He could have gotten an even bigger boost had he not seemed to physically shrink in the face of Giuliani's bullying. He had the virtue of offering the most coherent philosophy. He had the courage to advocate dismantling the Department of Homeland Security, saying we didn't need another layer of bureaucracy to fight terrorism. He zinged the other candidates who used the term "enhanced interrogation techniques," saying it sounded like Newspeak. Yesterday I noticed that "Ron Paul" was the top Google search of the day, and his performance last night will probably keep him on top of those rankings for a while. Still, his repeated references to "my argument is . . ." made him seem like he was competing in a high school debate contest, not a Presidential primary. People don't vote for arguments.
Gilmore didn't. He twice ducked the question about how he felt about the lack of ethnic and gender diversity among the Republican candidates. He talked about the "tough decision" that may have to be made to "strike" Iran and managed to sound superficial as he did. He had his message--I'm a consistent conservative--but never moved beyond it to define what that might mean to the voters. Nothing he said was memorable or connectible to people's lives. And he almost fractured his ulna patting himself on the back for coining the "Rudy McRomney" phrase to describe the big three of the GOP.
Romney didn't. The handsome smoothness that made such an effective introduction to his candidacy in the first debate slid down half a notch toward glib slickness. His responses to the first few questions were so nonsubstantive that there is nothing but white space in my notebook after his name. Once again, he went off on a tangent about "cloning" and "embryo farming," as if these sci-fi scenarios were serious political issues. He seemed to tack right and to try to position himself as the candidate of torture and extrajudicial imprisonment. He was glad, he said, that those (hypothetical) shopping mall terror suspects were in Guantanamo where American lawyers couldn't talk to them and where "enhanced interrogation techniques" could be applied. In fact, said Mitt, we ought to double the size of Guantanamo! And repeal McCain/Feingold while we're at it--boy, there's a message to incite the Republican masses. I remember how the Republicans used to delight in calling Bill Clinton "Slick Willie." Clinton's slickness, however, was a lot more subtle and took some time to notice. Here it is only the second debate, and already Romney is starting to look greasy.
Thompson (Tommy, that is) didn't. It's no doubt unfair to hold the man's appearance against him, but that's politics. He comes off like an avuncular small-town insurance salesman. When pressed ('cuz he ducked the question the first time) to name federal programs he would eliminate, he came up with something about a CDC program involving "stockpile." I'm a pretty close follower of national politics and government, but I had no idea what he was talking about. In his answer on stem cells, he went full metal Babbitt, extolling the virtues of Wisconsin, Wisconsin, Wisconsin! I give his candidacy another two months, tops.
Tancredo didn't. Are there really "a million" federal programs that are beyond the scope of the constitution? Neat-o keen. Is it really a "dictate of their religion" for Muslims to try to kill us? It probably seems that way to people who believe that the pre-eminent teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is to hate fags. Is there really a one-for-one ratio of scientists who accept global warming to those who deny it? I must have missed that item in the Weekly World News.
No, the surprise winner of last night's debate was Mike Huckabee. He had the best delivery of any candidate, pitched nicely in that Presidential spot between the formal and the conversational. He had the best joke of the night, saying that Congress spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop--a zinger just edgy enough to get the GOP's blood moving but one that stopped short of out-and-out meanness. He won the Bud Light primary, that contest about which candidate people would most like to have a beer with.
He had a great defense ready when one of the other candidates took off after him for being insufficiently conservative on account of his having raised gasoline taxes in Arkansas; he said he wouldn't apologize for building roads or spending more money on education, both of which his state needed.
When questioned about his decision to parole a rapist who then went out and committed even more serious crimes, he parried with common sense and a touch of humility. I don't have foresight, he said, but I have great hindsight. We live in a tough world and I make tough decisions, but I don't always make perfect decisions. He said all this without seeming defensive or rattled. It was a textbook example of how to deflect questions like that.
In the mall bombing scenario, he said he would ask Americans for sacrifice, just as they were asked for sacrifice after Pearl Harbor. This was an effective but nonhostile way of separating himself from the doctrine of the Bush administration, which holds that we can fight two wars at once while recovering from 9/11 and Katrina without asking Americans to do anything more than go shopping.
As good as his performance last night was, Huckabee is not likely to break out of the pack anytime soon. The odds are stacked against him. He's not a household name. He comes from a smaller state. He's not currently in office, so he can't make news. He's not extravagantly well funded. On the basis of performances like last night's, though, I wouldn't be surprised to see him tapped for the #2 spot on the Republican ticket.