Compared to the Hillary-Obama schoolyard rumble on Monday night, the Republican debate last night was downright sedate. But potentially consequential, nevertheless.
The GOP survivors stayed on their best behavior, for several reasons. The stakes in next Tuesday's Florida primary are enormous; anybody who finishes third or lower is probably toast in the long run. Also, the Florida polls currently show a close race (Mitt Romney and John McCain on top, with Rudy Giuliani in striking distance) and nobody wanted to lash out and risk a voter/viewer backlash. Indeed, Florida's NBC affiliates aired the debate statewide, to a mass audience of prospective Republican voters, many of whom were scrutinizing the candidates for the first time; the candidates, mindful of this, wanted to make a good first impression.
With those factors in mind, let's hand out the trophies.
Best performance in a 90-minute drama: Mitt Romney. He may look like (in David Letterman's words) "the medical expert in a Victoria Principal infomercial," but last night, at least, he accomplished all his aims as a candidate.
First, he outshined all his rivals by speaking articulately and at length about economic issues, flashing his private sector credentials. In terms of solutions, he pushed all the right Republican buttons (and remember, only registered Republicans are allowed to vote in the Florida primary), and, more importantly, he seemed confident and in command (which matter on TV). Second, he repeatedly stressed his anti-Washington "outsider" message. Third, he trumpeted a hawkish message on Iraq, jumping on that GOP-friendly theme before McCain could weigh in. Fourth, he railed against Hillary Clinton before his rivals had a chance to do so. Fifth, he made sure the Republican viewers knew that McCain had originally voted against the Bush tax cuts. And sixth, his rivals didn't gang up on him this time, for the aforementioned reasons. He was able to relax and relate to the Republican viewers on his own terms. He seems well positioned to win Florida, slowing McCain and scrambling the race even further.
Most labored attempts at self-defense: John McCain. He did OK, overall. But at several points in the debate, when he had his back to the wall, he uttered false statements.
First, during a discussion on the economy, host Tim Russert noted that McCain had recently said he was not particulary well versed on economic issues; McCain tried to deny the whole thing, telling Russert, "I don't know where you got that quote from." Well, here's where Russert got the quote from -- The Boston Globe, on Dec. 18. One day earlier, McCain had told a group of reporters that "the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."
Second, during a discussion on whether McCain is sufficiently popular with the Republican base (he's not), McCain insisted that, referring to his earlier primary victories, "I won the majority of the Republican vote in New Hampshire and South Carolina." Actually, he did not. Romney bested him in New Hampshire among Republican voters, 35 to 34 percent. Mike Huckabee bested him in South Carolina among Republican voters, 32 to 31 percent. Indeed, McCain won those two contests only because independents and crossover Democrats were allowed to participate; Florida is a closed primary, so we shall see whether he can break through.
Third, McCain insisted again, as he has in other debates, that he voted against the original Bush tax cuts only because the measures did not include tough curbs on spending. In reality, he had opposed such tax cuts when Bush first proposed them during the 2000 campaign - on the grounds that the cuts were aimed at the rich, at the expense of the middle class. At the time, he sounded like a liberal.
Lamest candidate spin: Rudy Giuliani. Speaking of toast, this guy might prove to be Exhibit A. The longer he has camped out in Florida, the lower he sinks in the polls. There has to be a reason why he keeps turning people off, and perhaps The New York Times nailed it this morning, in its New York primary endorsement of McCain over Rudy. The Times editorial calls Rudy "a narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man...(whose) arrogance and bad judgment are breathtaking." Rudy last night tried to laugh this off as simply the sour grapes of a newspaper that generally opposed his mayoral policies; in Rudy's words, "I think there's a serious ideological difference." Well, The Times editorial page always had serious ideological differences with Ronald Reagan, but it never felt compelled to judge Reagan's character that way.
Most blatant pandering: Mike Huckabee. What was he doing, running for governor of Florida? His idea for fixing the Florida economy, and for improving the Floridian way of life, is to "add two lanes of highway" on I-95, all the way to Miami, to ensure that Floridians get to "their kids' dance recitals or soccer games" in a more timely fashion. The look of astonishment on Romney's face was priceless; thank you, TiVo. Then Huckabee wrapped it all in a populist/protectionist package, urging that those lanes be built with "American steel." (Don't we get a lot of our steel from China these days? Does Huckabee want to bar Chinese steel?)
Slowest softball lobbed down the middle of the plate: John McCain. I know these guys were going easy on each other, but McCain's question to Huckabee was something to behold. McCain brought up Huckabee's idea about scrapping the federal income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax. Most economists think that the Huck's sales levy would actually shift the tax burden to the average working stiffs of America (the same people whom Huckabee claims to represent), but McCain didn't touch that. Instead, doing his best impression of a jock sports announcer interviewing a jock, McCain merely asked Huckabee, "How do you account for the resonance this proposal has gotten throughout the nation?" Which makes me wonder, are these guys plotting to be running mates?
And lastly, Best Pun: Mike Huckabee. He always has such a way with words; last night, while pandering to hawkish Republican voters, he even compared the hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the hunt for Easter eggs. But I digress. He insisted last night that, under his tax reform plan, there "would be no more underground economy." He said that even prostitutes would be paying taxes - which means, he said, that they would no longer be "working under the table."
Yessir, that's why we all heart Huckabee.
Programming note: I'll say something on Sunday morning about the Hillary-Obama results in South Carolina, and the Democratic race beyond.