This week's GOP debate in South Carolina was another opportunity for the top tier guys (McCain, Romney, Giuliani) to distinguish themselves from one another, as well as an opportunity for the lesser-known candidates to kindle an identity for themselves in the public eye. Unlike the earlier GOP debate, I did not watch this one in its entirety, but I've reviewed partial transcripts and viewed snippets and digested some snap post-debate commentary, and, having done so, I feel reasonably confident in offering this analysis. By the way, the news of the day today has to do with the Senate's backroom bipartisan deal on immigration reform, and I'll certainly post on that once I know more details of the agreement. At first blush, I'm at best greatly conflicted, and I need to reflect for a few days on how this agreement purports to solve such a base failure as our government's failure to adequately secure our nation's borders. But I digress...
With regard to the GOP debate, Mitt Romney was clearly the biggest loser of the night, I think in part because he had done so very well in the previous MSNBC debate. This week Romney was not so sharp, seemed to struggle with some answers, and consequently suffered the letdown of unmet expectations. My impression of Romney from the first debate was that he looked Presidential and in command of the issues. That was not my impression this week.
The conventional wisdom is that Rudy Giuliani helped himself the most among the Big Three with his authoritative focus on national security and his seemingly spontaneous umbrage with Libertarian Ron Paul's blaming of 9/11 in part on American foreign policy. Nevertheless, I do not believe Giuliani can win the GOP nomination with his strategy of embracing his pro-choice views on abortion. I once thought he could possibly finesse the issue with his assurances about appointing strict constructionist judges, but I believe he has needlessly alienated too many social conservatives with what I perceive is a flippancy ("It'd be OK..." to reverse Roe) toward one of the foundational issues of our day. He once had the reserve of good will to handle this issue, but I believe his opportunity is lost.
The debates do not help John McCain. His answers remind me of Al Gore's--the canned responses of an insider. I'm convinced John McCain is pursuing a pipe dream but doesn't know it. He has banked on the tradition of Republicans to nominate "the next in line" (think Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, even Ronald Reagan in 1980), but he underestimates his negatives. Conservatives remember his campaign finance reform which limits our free speech rights, his opposition to the Bush tax cuts, his coddling of the liberal media in 2000 in part by attacking religious conservatives, and his hamstringing of America's efforts to interrogate terrorists with his publicity-seeking opposition to "torture." McCain is learning the same lesson many other Republicans have learned the hard way--he was once a media darling by virtue of attacking conservatives, but now that the mainstream media has deserted him, he finds himself alienated from those conservatives. His base is now largely comprised of establishment inside-the-Beltway types who have no firm ideology. Support from such folks might normally be enough for a Republican to win the GOP nomination, but I suspect not for McCain, because I think he's made too many conservatives mad.
I've posted before of my support for Mike Huckabee, and I think his polished performances in both GOP debates may be enough to push him up from the mass of lower-tier candidates into his own lone position as a second tier alternative. He clearly had the line of the night with his John Edwards beauty shop one-liner, and his deft handling of questions and fresh yet polished candor is very appealing. National pundits don't appreciate what many of us know--Huckabee's background as a pastor of a large Baptist church is serving him very well right now. Huckabee has also quelled my concern that he might not be committed enough to limited government and lower taxes. He has a proposal for a consumption tax called the "Fair Tax" to replace income and corporate taxes, and his support for this indicates to me that he understands the economic imperative of a limited tax burden. Political consultant Dick Morris has called Huckabee's delivery a combination of Reagan's and Clinton's styles, and after a bit of a shudder at his linkage of these two icons, I can see Morris's point. Huckabee is Reaganesque in his ideology and optimism and his media savvy delivery, but he also emotes and engages the crowd like Clinton can.
We're about two months away from the campaign's second quarter fund-raising reporting, and Huckabee will have to have shown some movement by then if he is to have a chance. I suspect he will. I also predict McCain will muddle along while most media attention is devoted to Giuliani and perhaps a summertime Fred Thompson entry into the race. This is all very interesting to political junkies like me, but it's also critically important for our country as these candidates lay the groundwork for our nation's alternative to the Democratic vision of defeat, retreat, division, and economic and moral decay.