Reagan Night
Republicans in the Simi Valley.


On Thursday night, the current crop of Republicans running for president in 2008 met at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, for their first debate. National Review Online asked a group of commentators and politicos for their take on this first venture out together.

Yuval Levin

In terms of the format and the moderators, this was easily the worst political debate I’ve ever seen. Too many questions, too little time, too much focus on silly Internet questioners, and Chris Matthews was simply a buffoon. Why shouldn’t a Republican host a Republican primary debate?

Given that inherent (but equally distributed) burden, the field as a whole did reasonably well. There is a striking contrast between the leading Republicans and the leading Democrats in terms of experience (especially executive experience) and stature. If you had to choose a party based on the two sets of candidates, as they came off in the two recent debates, it’s easy to believe most Americans would choose the GOP.

But individually, who really stood out? If you knew nothing about this race except what you saw tonight, I suspect you would guess the three leading candidates were Romney, McCain, and Huckabee — probably in that order. All three were poised, sharp, and reasonably presidential. It was hard to see why Giuliani is a frontrunner (indeed, probably the frontrunner) and why Huckabee is so far behind. Giuliani was tired and off balance. He is capable of doing much better than this, but just didn’t show up tonight.

In the end, though, I have to return to the horrendous format, which made this a useless event even for those few of us who watched. I’m not sure we learned anything about who should be the Republican candidate. But I am sure we learned much about who shouldn’t host any more Republican debates.

Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine.

Kathryn Jean Lopez

Fred Thompson wasn’t there at the Reagan Library Thursday night, but he wasn’t hurt by not being there. (More than one Corner reader last night said he was the winner.) If he was watching to see if any of the frontrunners faltered, he saw that Rudy Giuliani did. If Thompson feels called by his nation, this may be his natural opening.

But I wonder, too, if Senator Thompson — a good man who is doing well for himself and his family without a race — watched the debate and thought, maybe John or that Romney fella will do this nation fine. Because both the senator and governor came off as plausible possibilities for president. McCain was the principled-on-the-war guy we know him to be. Romney showed himself to be a smart, articulate, optimistic, serious leader. If it was a first impression for anyone watching, as I imagine it might have been for anyone flipping away from The Office for a few minutes, it was a good start.

Jaded Washington pundits who think the Latter-Day candidate is a no-go because of his religion should watch Romney’s answer to the dumbest question of the night. Admittedly, that’s a bit of a contest Chris Matthews was in with himself, but his question to Romney about the propriety of Catholic bishops withholding Communion from offending politicians took the cake. Without hesitating, Romney announced it was ’none of his business who Catholic bishops want to give communion to. It was a normal, honest, comforting answer. Would more politicians know when to say “that’s none of my business.”

Honorable mention: Mike Huckabee always seems like an uplifting preacher (he is one, as it happens). He won’t be president, but I like having him around. We’re probably all better for it.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.

Edward Morrissey
I think the first question we have to answer is “How did MSNBC do?” Answer: Poorly. This presidential debate resembled a game show rather than a political forum. We had three moderators, one of whom insisted on rambling all over the stage to ask questions from the online audience. Those questions made the MTV “Boxers or briefs?” question seem thoughtful and relevant at times. One bright light apparently expected an answer to “What do you dislike most about America?” Lightning-round queries by Matthews left the candidates understandably frustrated when complex questions left no time for good answers. The format also made for uneven candidate participation; we heard less from Rudy Giuliani than we did from Ron Paul.

Mitt Romney had the best night. Calm, warm, thoughtful, and engaging, he looked and sounded like a serious presidential candidate. John McCain and Giuliani didn’t do themselves any favors, and at times did some damage, but managed to rally back to adequacy. Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, and Duncan Hunter made cases as real candidates, while Sam Brownback didn’t quite get over that hump. Tom Tancredo showed no depth outside of immigration. The two embarrassments were Tommy Thompson and Ron Paul. Thompson’s takeaway was that he doesn’t oppose firing people for being gay, while Ron Paul’s was his insistence on answering every question with a discourse on the original intent of the Constitution. Both of them should understand their roles as the GOP’s Crazy Uncle Bobs and return to the attic forthwith.

If Fred Thompson can manage to skip the rest of these debates until the primaries, he might become the consensus Republican nominee. He may have actually won this debate simply by forcing the others to endure this one without him.

Edward Morrissey blogs at Captains Quarters.

Kathleen Parker
The clear winner was Ronald Reagan, bless his optimistic heart. And those eyes! When evildoers looked into Reagan’s eyes, they handed over all their hostages and their spare change.

Or something like that, according to Rudy Giuliani, who did not rise to his poll numbers tonight. In fact, he lost the debate, beginning with the first question when he seemed nervous and disorganized. At no time did he manage to convey the strength and confidence of America’s mayor.

Clearly, Rudy doesn’t do panels well. Worst two answers of the night: He fumbled badly on the difference between Sunni and Shia. Then, when asked whether the increased influence of Christians is good for the U.S., he deflected, saying something like: “Sure, the influence of large numbers of people is always good for the U.S. . . but we have to reach out to others. We need to bring in Democrats.” And, you know, whatever.

McCain made me want to spirit valium to Simi Valley before he followed Osama bin Laden to the Gates of Hell. His answers and delivery seemed canned and cartoonish. But the man gets credit for steely resolve and the most impressive segue of the night: When asked about public funding for stem cell research, he thanked Nancy Reagan for her kindness when he was a POW. No way. McCain was a POW?

And the winner is: Mitt the Good, the Perfect, the Gosh-Darned Smartest of Them All. He was substantive, concise, and humorous, if somewhat over-educated for those who haven’t yet read the Cliff Notes on altered nuclear stem cells. His answer on stem-cell research showed that he has delved deeply into the issue while shedding light on his apparent flip-flop on abortion.

Best answer of the night: When asked (ridiculously) about government intervening when Catholic bishops withhold communion from certain pols, Romney blasted the idea with humor, saying that Roman Catholic bishops “can do whatever the heck they want,” while simultaneously defusing the Mormon issue and shifting focus to radical Islamists.

“This is a nation after all that wants a leader who is a person of faith, but we don’t choose our leader based on what church they go to.” Mormon issue, check. And, “This a nation which also comes together over faith . . . the people we’re fighting, they’re the ones who divide over faith and who decide matters of this nature in the public forum.” That was’ a twofer.

Runner-up goes to Mike Huckabee. Smart, pleasant, knowledgeable, and straightforward, he was the surprise in the Cracker Jack box. “Live Carb-Free: Vote Romney/Huckabee.”

— Kathleen Parker is a nationally syndicated South-Carolina-based columnist.


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