Columbia, S.C. — I got a good vibe about the South Carolina debate when I heard a rumor that one of the names on the “No Admittance” security watch list at the Koger Center was Chris Matthews.
The MSNBC debate was, without a doubt, an utter waste of time. The debate on Fox News, on the other hand, actually had a few moments that almost resembled, well, a debate. And as with good jazz, the notes that were missing were just as significant as the ones we heard.
Imagine, for example, the sour notes that a Matthews or Olbermann would have brought to any event in South Carolina. The line-up of questions would have been as follows: the Confederate flag; Bob Jones University; the Confederate flag; the GOP’s southern strategy; the Confederate flag; Jerry Falwell; and finally, “Sen. McCain, are you sure you don’t want to change your position again on the Confederate flag?”
Fox News kept the nonsense down to a dull roar. One Confederate-flag question for Sen. McCain, a reasonable one related to his 2000 campaign, which he promptly knocked out of the park by essentially saying, “Don’t we have more important things to talk about?”
The thousands of South Carolina Republicans in attendance roared their approval.
The one truly memorable moment from the debate also involved batting down nonsense unworthy of the time and attention of serious-minded people. Listening to Ron Paul (R., Twilight Zone) legitimize the 9/11 attacks as the rational, anticipatable reaction to America’s foreign policy, Rudy Giuliani delivered the smackdown Americans wanted to hear: “That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11.”
It was the mayor’s moment, and he seized it. It wasn’t that Giuliani said anything the other candidates didn’t also believe, but it highlighted that he is the right person to say it. You could see in your mind’s eye how Giuliani would look during a similar moment across the stage from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. And in your mind’s eye, it looked really, really good.
Two other visions flashed into my mind after listening to Mayor Giuliani pounce on Ron Paul’s “Blame America Always” theories about 9/11, and they’re both from YouTube. In the past few weeks both former Sen. John Edwards and former Sen. John Kerry (whaddaya mean he’s still in the Senate? Are you sure?) have been approached by members of the 911truth.nut conspiracy. Both men were asked about “WTC 7” and controlled demolitions and other nonsense usually reserved for the fever swamps of the Internet and/or The View. The premise of the questions is that Americans still don’t know what really happened on 9/11 or who really killed 3,000 people, and that it’s possible that the real murderers are Halliburton, the Mossad, and the protectors of the Da Vinci Code.
In other words, compared to the questions Edwards and Kerry got, Ron Paul sounds relatively sane. And yet, neither Democrat delivered a Rudyesque whacking to his questioner. Far from it, these two men — one who wants to be president and one who came within one state of actually being president — took these kooky questions seriously. The promised to look into the matter. Sen. Edwards even directed the 9/11truth loonie to a staffer. “Please be sure to give him your contact information,” Edwards told him.
Perhaps this is smart politics for Edwards. A recent Rasmussen poll found that just 39 percent of Democrats could agree with the statement “George W. Bush did not know about the 9/11 attacks in advance.”
But can you imagine the answer Rudy Giuliani would have given one of these nuts — assuming one was foolhardy enough to ask it? I would put that exchange on Pay-Per-View.
There were other effective moments during the debate: Huckabee’s passionate-yet-not-scary explanation of the hardcore pro-life position; Duncan Hunter on tax policy undermining American manufacturing in global trade; McCain’s defense of the Iraq war. They were effective answers because they were serious and substantive, not pandering or — as was so often the case in the previous debate — irrelevant.
The overall quality of the performances was so high, the clunkers tended to stand out. Two are worth noting. Romney didn’t have a great night because he didn’t have many moments to shine. When his moments did arrive, he mishandled them. He flubbed his best selling point, his “conservative governor of America’s most liberal state” argument. Mitt’s jokes were flat, and so was his performance.
He did have one decent line, when he compared Sen. McCain’s immigration “reform” with campaign finance “reform,” and found them both wanting. This was Sen. McCain’s worst moment of the night. He responded, not with an attack on Romney’s positions, but an attack on Romney the candidate. McCain declared Romney a flip-flopper, which may be true, but didn’t answer the question about McCain’s unpopular (among Republicans) positions on immigration and free speech.
Giuliani would have answered that question with a smile. He would have looked presidential doing it. McCain didn’t do either.
One more reason why it was Rudy Giuliani’s night.