Politics & Policy

The Second Date

Will you bother with a third?

FOX News hosted the second Republican debate of the 2008 presidential-primary season on Tuesday night in South Carolina. National Review Online asked a group of commentators to analyze how it went.

Mona Charen

The most humorous moment of the evening had to be former Gov. Jim Gilmore — the Wonder Bread of candidates, saying “I know I shook things up.”

I think Giuliani won. McCain got in a few good one liners, one at Romney’s expense when he mentioned not changing his views due to even-numbered years or the office he was seeking — but he did himself harm by the torture position. His argument fell flat in many ways. He urges that people under torture will tell interrogators what they want to hear. Yes. But that includes the truth. He argued that our people will be subject to torture if we use it against terrorists. But in what conflict over the past 50 years have our enemies refrained from torture?

McCain was fine on spending of course. But he did not do himself any favors in the discussion of campaign finance, nor in his invocation of bipartisanship on immigration. This is the Republican primary. Republicans do not want to hear about how well you work with Democrats. The point is to defeat them.

Romney was smart and smooth as usual but not quite on point. His long riff about Washington being broken and how he would make it more streamlined, less wasteful blah, blah, blah, sounded hackneyed. And I didn’t get the joke about black and blue — and neither, apparently, did the audience.

Giuliani had an “I’m paying for this microphone” moment: By responding with fury to Ron Paul’s basically blame-America explanation for 9/11, he seized the moment. What he said wasn’t especially insightful or original, but the emotional content was pitch perfect.

  Mona Charen, a nationally syndicated columnist, is author, most recently, of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (And the Rest of Us).

Yuval Levin

In an effort to put up with such a very long campaign season, many of us have been telling ourselves that starting so early will at least give the candidates a chance to hone their skills and give voters a chance to really get a sense of what’s on offer in 2008. Tuesday night was the first time that notion actually seemed plausible. Thanks in no small part to the format and the moderators, this was a serious and interesting debate, the first one of the campaign, in either party.

The basic lesson I took away was that the three top-tier candidates are in the top tier for a reason. McCain, Romney, and Giuliani all carry themselves with a presidential gravity, and are all fairly lucid and well-honed on most issues. The only second-tier candidate who seemed to belong with them was Mike Huckabee, who may well have come in second in this debate.

But if so he was a distant second. This was Giuliani’s night. Romney and McCain made almost no errors, and said what they needed to say, but Giuliani did more than that. He took command on several occasions, and whenever he was called on he had something sharp to say. His abortion answer (while surely still expressing a view I disagree with) finally sounded like he had actually given it thought, and on a whole range of issues he was able to project the image that made him popular in the first place. Giuliani still confronts a monumental task: persuading the base of the party to overlook his disagreement with them on an enormous range of domestic issues. But he certainly helped himself in this debate.

– Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Kathryn Jean Lopez

Rudy Giuliani did so much better Tuesday night than he did last time — for one thing, this time I had the sense he actually is in it to win it. After watching the Reagan-library debate, I thought: “Well, we have two really plausible presidents here.” After the South Carolina debate, a third jumped on my list. The GOP frontrunners look like serious guys — when it comes to presidential-level gravitas, there seems to be some there there. There are kinks here and there — and some pretty fundamental ones at that in one case or another — but I think Republican-primary voters can feel confident they are going to have some competency and leadership to choose from next year. And if Fred Thompson gets into this mix, it is not going to be because the GOP is desperate.

A few sidebars:

‐ To cite the other big contest of the night, Romney might be the Melinda Doolittle of the Republican primary field. He set the bar high for himself that first time out, at the Reagan library, and he won. So if he’s anything less than he was that first night, he’ll be a tad disappointing, even if he was relatively fine. Bet, hey, welcome to prime-time presidential politics, Guv. Melinda’s sticking with it to the end; Romney 2008 certainly goes on.

‐ I found Tom Tancredo’s Damascus-Des Moines conversion joke insulting. We want converts.

‐ I love that Mike Huckabee, Baptist-minister social conservative, emanates “normal” and “likable.”

‐ Though I was previously disappointed with him on the surge, I thought Brownback condemning Harry Reid’s “lost” remark and admonishing against having a party that is for the war and a party that is against the war — what the Democrats created when they ditched Joe Lieberman in my humble opinion — was important.

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


Kate O’Beirne

A round robin of one-minute answers invites platitudes, but I thought Tuesday evening’s candidates’ forum (Sarkozy and Royal debated) had some revealing moments, if not clear winners and losers. The Republican audience was obviously eager for their contenders to go on offense against the other team. Although Governor Huckabee’s crack about John Edwards was a big crowd-pleaser, Rudy Giuliani was most in tune with the audience’s desire. He criticized Democrats in general and Hillary in particular. His quick, indignant response to Ron Paul on 9/11 was the night’s soundbite that made him America’s Mayor again. He had a good night, but so too did Mitt Romney.

As a talented overachiever, Romney’s fate is to be judged on a tough curve. He can be expected to be thoroughly prepared and he’s a natural salesman. So again he was confident and sure-footed. Inexplicably, John McCain emphasized his commitment to bipartisanship and Romney reminded the audience that McCain-Kennedy and McCain-Feingold were regrettable collaborations.

John McCain too is a pro. I thought his most uncomfortable moment was during the introductions when the sidebar bios reminded us that he is only a year younger than Ron Paul, who is old enough to remember that Republicans used to want to eliminate Cabinet agencies — now that’s old!

–Kate O’Beirne is NR’s Washington editor.

Kathleen Parker

The top three are still the top three in the following order:

Giuliani played daddy tonight and spanked Ron Paul for blaming the U.S. for 9/11. Big points for calling on Paul to withdraw his absurd statement. Message: Don’t mess with Rudy.

McCain was calm and measured, no more hyper-ventilating about the Gates of Hell or displaying his virility for those who think he might be too old. He was characteristically steadfast on the war (pro) and torture (con). Message: Heroes don’t have to prove their manliness.

Romney, though substantive and polished — and more comfortable with the flip-flop issue despite McCain’s taunt — wasn’t the shiniest penny this time. You get the feeling Romney isn’t inclined to get his mitts dirty, while Giuliani and McCain are ready to rumble. Whatever Romney’s executive skills — and they are significant — Giuliani and McCain seem more comfortable in the mean streets and trenches where, respectively, they’ve earned their bona fides. Message: Let the big dogs eat.

Among second-tier candidates: Huckabee is still likeable and reassuring; Tancredo seemed slightly hysterical; Hunter needs a Cabinet position; and Paul needs to become a Democrat. Brownback, Thompson, and Gilmore need to stay just the way they are and never forget all the great times.

Winner: Fox News: fair, balanced, and unafraid.

Loser: John Edwards.

Best line: Congress spends money like John Edwards at a beauty shop (Huckabee).

Honorable Mention: South Carolina. The audience applauded, snickered, and laughed in all the right places. Message: Bin Laden does not want his camel to throw a shoe in the Palmetto State.

– Kathleen Parker is a South Carolina-based syndicated columnist.

Pat Toomey

All Around Winner: Rudy Giuliani for acknowledging the Club for Growth as the arbiter of economic conservatism.

All Around Loser: John McCain. McCain did not give conservatives any reason to get behind his campaign, and gave then more than enough reasons not to. One of the most striking was his response to the question on the Bush tax cuts. He refused to admit that his 2001 and 2003 votes against the tax cuts were a mistake, and continues to peddle a lame explanation for why he supports making the Bush tax cuts permanent — because otherwise it would constitute a tax increase. His answer is a negative one instead of a positive response about the crucial role tax cuts play in growing our economy. McCain was asked “how can you convince Republican voters you will push a Democratic Congress hard enough to make those tax cuts permanent?” McCain clearly demonstrated that he can’t.

Status Quo Award: Romney’s responses were reasonable, articulate, and conservative, but a little short on inspiration — kind of like his campaign so far.

Winner of Award for Economic Illiteracy: Duncan Hunter for his comments on trade. Hunter claimed China has devalued its currency by 40 percent and that Americans have lost 1.8 million jobs to China. Both these comments are patently absurd. Duncan Hunteror any other human being for that mattercannot tell you the precise value of the Chinese currency, and the loss of manufacturing jobs in America cannot be blamed on China but an economy that is increasingly more reliant on technology and automation.

Best Comic Answer of the Night: Huckabee’s poke at John Edwards’s $400 haircuts.

– Pat Toomey is the president of the Club for Growth.

T. J. Walker

And the big winner was…Fox News. I’ve watched every presidential debate since 1976 and I don’t remember any one that was conducted as skillfully by the questioners as this one. Brit Hume, Chris Wallace, and Wendell Goler were tough, thorough, probing, fair, funny, and light on their feet. Perfectly nuanced, they didn’t showboat but they did interrupt and politely point out when the politicians failed to answer questions.

Mike Huckabee did more than deliver the night’s best line on how Congress spends more money “than John Edwards at a beauty parlor.” Huckabee has earned the right to be considered a first-tier candidate; he was clever, thoughtful, earnest, and compassionate. Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, is dare I say it, Clintonian, in his ability to sound smooth, likeable, and intelligent. The party faithful must admit that Huckabee “fits the suit.” He’s a southern, conservative governor who could be president.

John McCain is back! Feisty McCain ripped into Romney for being a political flip-flopper and took jabs at the guys who had never served in the military for being the only ones who were pro-torture. This was a marked improvement for McCain over his first debate performance.

Giuliani is back too. If Giuliani didn’t pay Ron Paul to say America deserved to be attacked by terrorists, Giuliani should have. In a spirited exchange, Giuliani finally had the opportunity to do what he does best: beat up on bad guysin this case, those weak on terrorism. Giuliani drastically improved his handling of tough abortion questions. Unfortunately for Giuliani, his greatest strength, his toughness, is also his greatest weaknesshe seems mean. This comes to light when he dismissed his fellow candidate Ron Paul as “absurd.”

Mitt Romney is too slick. Of course by “too slick” what I really mean is that I can’t think of a single way to fault Romney’s style, intelligence, grammar, emotion, or ability to connect with an audience. (“Too slick” is the last refuge of a scoundrel political/media critic who can’t think of any other way to attack someone who has communication gifts beyond mere mortals.) Romney is too slick in the same way Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and Tony Blair were all accused of being too slick throughout their careers. Comparatively, Romney didn’t dominate this debate the way he did in the first one, but that is because many of his colleagues had a good night in Columbia, not because Romney turned in a subpar performance.

Jim Gilmore has become a whiner. He keeps complaining that he is the only real conservative in the race and he seems upset that no one takes him seriously.

Tommy Thompson is so stiff he makes Al Gore look like Robin Williams.

Tom Tancredo is still a not for-prime-time player.

Ron Paul sounded very presidential in this debate. Unfortunately, his message of isolationism makes him a misfit for any nomination other than the Green party.

T. J. Walker is the author of Presentation Training A-Z.

Charmaine Yoest

There’s no doubt that analysis of this debate will focus on the Rudy Giuliani-Ron Paul dust-up. When Giuliani, challenged Ron Paul on his assertion that we brought 9/11 on ourselves, it was a remarkable moment in a night of otherwise mostly rote political theater. I say “mostly” because Giuliani featured in another significant moment which will be much less remarked upon, but deserves equal attention. Have we ever previously witnessed a presidential candidate who supports abortion questioned by an African-American reporter about the parallel between abortion and slavery? Kudos to Wendell Goler. The candidate who got the biggest laugh of the night, Mike Huckabee, also played a supporting role in this vignette: his follow-up to Giuliani’s illogical answer to the abortion-slavery question neatly underscored that Giuliani’s abortion stance isn’t morally coherent. Very artfully done. That might not be coincidental. We shouldn’t underestimate the larger significance of that great John Edwards joke — it said of Huckabee that he had come prepared to play. In the end, however, ten candidates in a debate is too many. Or was it too few? How many viewers during the very-welcome commercial breaks watched Fred Thompson’s video calling out Michael Moore while wickedly chewing on a Cuban cigar — and then, while still laughing, clicked through to Thompson’s very serious 9:30 P.M. post on NRO about Hamas? This could be fun.. . if the Supreme Court weren’t on the line.

– Charmaine Yoest is a vice president of Family Research Council Action.

NR SymposiumNational Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.


The Latest