Winning Debate
The GOP goes for a third.


Kate O’Beirne

By the end of the debate, it seemed to me that Rudy Giuliani was in command. He was equally handicapped by the crowded stage and at the mercy of the uneven questions but he did the superior job of making it all work for him. His answer on a pardon for Scooter Libby was particularly strong. He showed an appropriate passion about an injustice. He also was most effective in taking arguments to the Democrats. And John Edwards is considered the talented advocate?

I think he could have been better prepared for the question about his Catholic faith. He implied a conflict between its doctrines and pluralism and annoyingly threw in the “throwing people in jail” bit on the abortion issue.

When Giuliani highlighted the “two principles” (lower taxes/smaller government and confronting the lethal threat we face) that unite Republicans I could imagine a significant number of Republicans saying, “Works for me.” Nicely done.

John McCain did a fair job of defending the unpopular immigration bill but was aided by its critics’ ineffectual complaints about it. His strong answers on Iraq contributed to an overall strong performance.

I think that last night Mitt Romney took a bronze among the top-three candidates. He was, as expected, confident, and fluid on the issues. But he appeared determined to make an optimistic case about the future and awkwardly tried to wedge this message into random answers. And he was apparently unprepared for a question about his campaign ads in Spanish — and it showed.

The moderators’ profiling had Gov. Huckabee slighted (in favor of Ron Paul!?) except for questions about religion and I now understand why President Bush never turned his Cabinet into a war Cabinet — it included Tommy Thompson. His snappy, simple answer on what to do about Iraq was embarrassing.

— Kate O’Beirne is Washington editor of National Review.

John J. Pitney Jr.

Conservatives believe in limited government. Yet we learned little about specific plans to cut spending.

McCain got applause when he blamed pork for the GOP’s loss of Congress. He promised: “I’ll veto every bill that has a pork-barrel project on it, and I’ll make the authors of it famous, and we’ll get spending under control, and we’ll stop the corruption in Washington.” Giuliani talked about performance measurements. Romney tried to get off the topic: “Yes, of course it’s spending, and yes we’re going to have to deal with all the issues and the problems we have. But the Republican party is a — is a party of the future and with a vision.”

None of them named a major program that deserves the ax. The same was true with the first two debates.

The silence is understandable. Cutting is popular in the abstract, but tough in the particular, since targets fight back. In any case, trimming pork won’t come close to balancing the budget. Any serious attack on the deficit must involve Social Security or Medicare. Dangerous stuff.

Nevertheless, the party’s conservative principles and the nation’s economic future are at stake. Shouldn’t the candidates be saying more?

— John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.