Let’s oversimplify a little bit, and think of tonight’s Republican debate as several discrete contests: Thompson vs. Huckabee; McCain vs. Romney; and Giuliani vs. irrelevance.
Who won these battles? In my view, Thompson and Giuliani won theirs, while McCain and Romney drew (a de facto victory for McCain).
Thompson came out swinging at Huckabee, and he landed some good blows — notably on Huckabee’s “blame America first” foreign policy, his stance on taxes, and his immigration policy as governor. Huckabee responded as he often does, with charm and evasion. This approach has worked for him in the past, and it may have worked tonight. But if the voters were paying attention, then an awful lot of traditional South Carolina conservatives had to be much more impressed by Thompson than by Huckabee.
Romney and McCain clashed less than we have come to expect, with the Senator perhaps now looking past Mitt. Romney hit McCain early on for saying that some of the jobs that have left Michigan aren’t coming back. To me, that’s essentially a truism. McCain certainly thought so, and responded that he won New Hampshire by telling the truth and that he’ll continue to do so. Intellectually McCain won that round. How it played in Michigan, I’m not sure.
McCain also did very well during the national security round/foreign policy round. Asked how the Republicans can win if troops don’t start coming home from Iraq, McCain turned the question around and wondered how the Dems can win when they continue to deny our success and how Clinton can explain away her “suspension of disbelief” remark. McCain also won the “thrive at Ron Paul’s expense” award tonight. His expression during Paul’s harrangue about how everyone wants to go to war with Iran (no candidate had suggested such a thing) was priceless.
Romney came back, though, with a strong statement on why he’s the candidate who can change things in Washington. And McCain stumbled again on immigration, a weak spot that may hurt him in South Carolina. He had no answer to the question of how to deal with those who are here illegally, except to say that the solution must be humane. But if McCain lost ground on this issue, he probably lost it to Thompson more than to Romney. So, again, I’ll call the McCain-Romney battle a draw.
Giuliani isn’t really competing in Michigan or South Carolina, so he wasn’t debating anyone in particular. Instead, he was simply trying to remind voters in the many states that come after Michigan and South Carolina that he’s still in the picture. This I think he accomplished through a series of well-delivered and mostly well-thought out answers on a range of issues.
One final thought. None of the candidates sounded good on the opening topic — the economy. The nominee, whichever candidate it is, will have to do much better on this set of issues and hope like crazy that the economy is doing reasonably well come autumn.
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