The Republican presidential race has morphed into a game of three-dimensional chess. As evidenced by the flow of dialogue in last night's debate - yes, there was another one - the current standoffs look roughly like this:
Mitt Romney versus John McCain (in the Michigan primary next Tuesday); Fred Thompson versus Mike Huckabee (in the South Carolina primary, a week from tomorrow); and Rudy Giuliani versus McCain (in the Florida primary, two weeks from tomorrow).
The subplots aren't quite as intricate as the story lines on The Wire, but, in this rare Republican race without a frontrunner, close attention must be paid. For instance, even though the debate was staged in South Carolina, the opening skirmish was all about Romney and McCain vying for voters in economically-troubled Michigan.
Romney, who may be toast if he can't win the state where his dad served three terms as a popular governor, upbraided McCain for saying recently that some of the jobs lost in Michigan won't be coming back. Romney vowed to "fight for every single job," although, naturally, he didn't say how he'd do it. (And this is the same guy who once led Bain Capital, a private equity firm that acquired businesses and advised its clients not to fight for every single job. Wite the opposite, in fact. As one fired union worker said of Romney in a 1994 political ad, "Basically, he cut our throats.")
Nor did McCain say how he'd revive the Michigan economy. No surprise there; economics has never been one of his major passions. Instead, he wandered into his standard rap about how Congress spends too much money, and about how he'd put a stop to it.
Then came the Thompson-Huckabee story line. Thompson, who may be toast unless he performs well in South Carolina, roused himself from his five-month slumber to repeatedly skewer his main competitor for the conservative base voters in that traditionally pivotal primary. He assailed Huckabee, the ex-Arkansas governor, as a betrayer of Ronald Reagan (within the GOP, there is no greater insult), as somebody who would "bring about liberal economic policy" and a "liberal foreign policy" that would practice the credo of "blame America first." Thompson said, "That's not the model of the Reagan coalition, that's the model of the Democratic Party."
Regarding the liberal economic label, Huckabee was forced to defend his record in Arkansas, where he did cut taxes 94 times (as he mentioned in the debate), but where, by the time he left office, his net tax hikes had outweighed his tax cuts by $500 million (a statistic he failed to mention). Nevertheless, he made this terrific point: If Ronald Reagan was running for president today, the same fiscal conservatives now attacking Huckabee would also be attacking Reagan - because, as governor of California, Reagan raised taxes by $1 billion during his first year. (Thompson had no answer to that one. Nor did anyone else. Reagan-worship does not leave much room for empiricism.)
But the Huck-Fred testosterone contest was the highlight of their story line. It happened in the wake of a discussion about an incident last weekend, when some Iranian speedboats swarmed around U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and purportedly sent a transmission threatening violence. Huckabee declared that, in general, all enemies who engage the U.S. military will be blown to "the gates of hell."
The crowd went crazy over that one - which meant that Thompson had to top it. So he came up with this one: "One more step, and they (Iranians) would have been introduced to those virgins that they're looking forward to seeing." (Again, pandemonium. Top that one, Huck.)
(It was left to Ron Paul to point out - accurately - that the U.S. Navy is now admitting that the English-speaking voice on the tape, threatening violence, may not have come from the speedboats at all, but from an unspecified location somewhere else. No matter. Romney jumped in to say that Paul sounded like he was reading from Iranian press releases.)
Then came the McCain-Giuliani story line. This is a machismo contest over which tough guy has the best national security creds. The stakes are potentially high, because Giuliani is staking his candidacy on Florida, McCain hopes to make it to Florida (via Michigan and South Carolina), and it's possible only one of those guys will get to the final round - along with Huckabee, a foreign policy lightweight.
So Giuliani did his 9/11 number, and told McCain that he has always been just as enthusiastic as McCain about the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. Then McCain went for the jugular: "I have been involved in every major national security challenge for the last 20 years, and before that, I fought in some of them. The fact is that I've led the largest squadron in the U.S. Navy - not for profit, but for patriotism."
Those last six words, in translation: "Unlike some people, who have cashed in on 9/11 and made millions, I put my life on the line in wartime. Top that one, Rudy."
Did anyone "win" last night's debate? Beats me. But McCain probably got the most mileage out of it. He's already well-positioned in Michigan, because some of the folks who like him best, independents and crossover Democrats, are permitted to vote in that primary. (He seemed to be wooing them last night, when he said this: "Climate change in my view is very real, and climate change has to be addressed.") And Romney never pressed him on the jobs issue, because Romney was otherwise preoccupied with trying to defend his own record as governor of Massachusetts - which ranked 46th in job growth during most of his tenure.
Meanwhile, the more that Thompson (his offstage friend) goes after Huckabee in South Carolina, the more it potentially helps McCain. He fares best in a three-way competition. His prospects for winning the state are enhanced if Thompson and Huckabee carve up the social/religious conservative voters, and leave him with enough voters (in particular, the sizeable population of military vets) to eke out a plurality.
And what a difference eight years can make. When McCain last competed here, he was up against Karl Rove and George W. Bush and the mysterious rumors about how he was an unstable, gay-friendly philanderer who had fathered a black baby (among other unsourceable slurs). Last night, nobody laid a glove on the guy, and few bothered to try. He's still a long way from a nomination, but, after his near-death experience last summer, he's probably grateful to be taking his turn at three-dimensional chess.
Speaking of Republicans, the author of this week's most hilarious attack was Karl Rove.
Writing yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, the man most responsible for elevating the truth-challenged George W. Bush to our highest office charged that Barack Obama has a thin resume, is "often lazy," and is "given to misstatements and exaggerations".
Insert joke here.