No matter how many boneheaded, irrelevant questions were thrown at them by MSNBC Thursday night, the Republican candidates for president were really only there to answer one: Can you beat Hillary Clinton in November? (Bonus question being asked by viewers across America: “Will you walk over and beat Chris Matthews right now?”)
If Thursday’s debate had truly mattered, the performance of Chris Matthews and his Politico.com posse would be an outrage. Can anyone imagine Brian Williams asking Sen. Barack Obama “What do you dislike most about America?” Would Fox News have been able to get away with overtly antagonistic questioning linking Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to Cindy Sheehan and Al Sharpton, the way Matthews and Co. pushed the Republican candidates on Karl Rove and Scooter Libby?
But the media’s pro-Democrat bias is part of the “Can you beat Hillary?” equation. Whoever the Republicans nominate will have to fight their way through the mainstream media to get to Sen. Clinton, should she (as she almost certainly will) win the Democratic nomination.
Republican primary voters know this. They fear this. And so they’re aren’t watching events like this debate asking “Can McCain beat Giuliani?” They want to see these guys prove they can walk on stage in some future forum, look Sen. Clinton in the eye and say “You’re goin’ down.”
What Republicans are looking for, in other words, is a contender. Going into Thursday night, there were two. The good news for the Republicans is that there now may be three. The bad news is that the top contender is clearly not ready to go 15 rounds.
First, let’s dispatch the seven non-contenders with two simple words: Rick Lazio. Lazio was a fine New York congressman and a decent candidate who was blown away by Hillary Clinton in the worst campaign she is ever going to run in her life. Republicans aren’t going to pick another lightweight. They need a heavy hitter, and they know it.
Giuliani is, without a doubt, a political heavyweight. National polls show he can take out Hillary, and Republican voters know it. He’s got the big name, he’s got the leadership credentials, he’s got the bipartisan appeal.
The question raised Thursday night was “Will he show up?”
Rudy’s debate performance was Rocky II before Adrian woke up. He was mentally flabby, his answers were sloppy, and he appeared largely uninterested by the entire event. Giuliani being unprepared for a question on abortion is like John Edwards forgetting his hairbrush. It should never happen.
Getting elected president is hard. It’s tough questions all day, every day. The only thing Giuliani accomplished Thursday night was raising doubts about his desire to fight.
Sen. John McCain, on the other hand, was all “Eye of the Tiger.” He came out swinging, left the stage swinging, and — based on his performance Thursday — is probably being restrained by his aides in a hotel room somewhere as he flails his arms screaming “Lemme at ‘em! Lemme at ‘em!”
McCain appears to have learned the lesson of the last war — the 2000 South Carolina primary — and is determined not to lose again on the Right. And McCain has apparently concluded, “conservative” is synonymous with “really angry.” So McCain came out angry. He was angry about the mishandling of the war. Mad about pork barrel spending. About taxes, abortion, global warming. He was mad as hell, and he’s not going to take [insert debate topic here] anymore!
And it’s true that, whenever John McCain is around conservatives, they’re angry. Why shouldn’t’ they be? He’s spent the past eight years pandering to the same mainstream media that mocks them, while working against conservatives on issues like immigration amnesty, and campaign finance.
Conservatives aren’t mad, Sen. McCain. They’re just mad at you.
However, if given the choice between an uninspired Giuliani and a hard-charging McCain, Republican primary voters may well choose the latter. McCain annoys conservatives more than Giuliani, but the fact is he’s to Rudy’s right on almost every issue. As long as polls and public perception show that McCain can beat Clinton, he’s probably the frontrunner to win the GOP nomination.
But the winner Thursday night was clearly Mitt Romney. Before the debate, Romney looked like a candidate strong enough to win the nomination but too weak to win against Hillary. He’s still a relatively risky choice to put up against Sen. Clinton in 2008. But for the first time on a national stage, Mitt Romney looked big-time.
His answers were smarter than Giuliani’s. His passion was more tempered than McCain’s. He was the one major candidate who benefited from the presence of the non-contenders. He was Brad Pitt at a Trekkie convention — the cool, good-looking guy who kept drawing your attention.
On the “Go GOP! Beat Hillary!” chart, Romney was the only candidate who moved up. Which means he was the only candidate who helped himself with the majority of Republican primary voters.