The Republican candidates had another debate tonight, this one in Florida on Fox. The Fox people came up with a novel approach to attacking the candidates. Instead of having their folks do it, after the fashion of Chris Matthews or (less sickeningly) Tim Russert, Fox “privatized” the job, attempting to induce the candidates to go after each other.
It worked. Right out of the box, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani went at it, and soon thereafter John McCain attacked Mitt Romney (not that this requires much inducing). Thompson gave at least as good as he got in his clash with Rudy. On the question of “who is the real conservative,” Thompson presented the list of social issues as to which Guiliani has taken liberal positions, and also cited Rudy’s support of Mario Cuomo for governor. Giuliani responded by attacking Thompson for voting against tort reform as a Senator. But Thompson countered that he supported tort reform with respect to key federal statutes, while opposing, for reasons of federalism, attempts to interfere with state tort law. Giuliani ended the encounter with his usual refrain about his New York record, a sure sign that he’s having trouble defending himself on the merits as a conservative.
Thompson’s ability to slug it out with Giuliani, coupled with overall improvement in the quality of his answers, makes him one of tonight’s winners. The other major winner was John McCain. McCain brought the house down when he criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting the Woodstock memorial museum. McCain acknowledged that Woodstock must have been “a cultural and pharmaceutical event,” but noted that he couldn’t make it because he “was tied up at the time.” McCain got off another great line when asked if President Bush had been naive when it came to Vladimir Putin. McCain said he didn’t know about that, but when he (McCain) looked into Putin’s eyes (he probably meant to say soul) he saw three letters, K-G-B. In addition to the one-liners, McCain gave sensible and concise answers on a range of issues.
Despite failing to shoot down Thompson, Giuliani had another good night. Several times, he successfully tied his answers to quotes from or references to Ronald Reagan. When he’s doing that (instead of rehearsing his New York city crime fighting record), it’s a sure sign that he’s successfully defending himself on the merits as a conservative.
Romney was solid, as he generally is, but didn’t say anything memorable. In response to a softball question about whether Hillary Clinton would make a good commander-in-chief, Romney talked about how he’s better than she is at running things. He thus fluffed an opportunity to attack Hillary on matters of substance. Near the end of the debate, he finally launched into an attack on the Clinton administration’s “vacation from history” foreign policy (“we got the dividend but not the peace”). Attacks like that are guaranteed winners in these kinds of debates, and Romney needs to make them at every opportunity.
Finally, Mike Huckabee recovered from a rare off-key performance in the last debate and once again was his commanding yet likeable self.
But if this debate is remembered at all, it will probably be because Fred Thompson, arguably a sleeping giant, seemed to wake up.
JOHN adds: I agree with all of that, except that I was a little less impressed with Thompson. And–if we can be forgiven a moment of frivolity–what was the deal with Mitt’s hair?
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