Politics & Policy

Debating New Hampshire

A weekend with the GOP.

One weekend, two debates — how does this weekend leave the Republican candidates? National Review Online asked a group of political observers and hands. Here is what they had to say.

Andrew Cline

Mitt Romney has to hope that everyone in New Hampshire was watching football Saturday night and the debate Sunday night. He had an awful first performance and an excellent second performance. On Sunday night he looked strong, calm, and articulately conservative. Unfortunately for him, John McCain didn’t pull out a Mexican immigrant and hug him right there on stage. McCain looked good in two debates, not one. Thompson, who many conservative commentators seemed to like, was not substantive enough and is a non-entity in New Hampshire. Mike Huckabee is competing with Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani for third place because Huckabee doesn’t know how to talk to economic conservatives and Giuliani made the unfortunate mistake of running a shell of a campaign in New Hampshire. So that leaves McCain and Romney.

Here in New Hampshire, McCain is absolutely surging. Romney has a very limited window of time to stop that surge. He did a fantastic job Sunday night in the debate. It would be a great irony if John McCain worked so hard for so many months to win the lead in New Hampshire and then lost it two nights before the primary because Mitt Romney had a single great night in a single debate. It also would be unlikely.

– Andrew Cline is editorial-page editor of the Union Leader in Manchester, N.H.

Yuval Levin

It’s amazing how quickly things seem to change in politics now. In a matter of days, a candidate can find himself the subject of a coronation and an obituary in the press, and even back again. The 2008 campaign seems very different now than it did a week ago.

But it also looks rather different than it did on Thursday night, when Governor Huckabee scored such an impressive victory in Iowa. Since then, Huckabee has had his two worst televised debates of the campaign season, and Mitt Romney — the second place finisher in the Hawkeye State — has had his two best, by far. It’s hard to know just how much that matters, and just how many undecided New Hampshire Republicans watched, but for those political junkies who did pay attention, the notion that Romney is toast is a good bit harder to swallow this morning than it was at the end of last week.

Some fundamental facts, after all, do not change as quickly as the conventional wisdom on who’s ahead. To win the nomination a candidate needs serious money, serious campaign infrastructure, energy, and focus, and the staying power to get through some tough news cycles. Iowa and New Hampshire make a big difference, but the campaign doesn’t end this week.

Who meets those criteria? Fred Thompson does not have the energy or the money to make it, and he will not be the Republican candidate. Mike Huckabee does not have a serious national infrastructure or a plan for how to run beyond the next few weeks, and he seemed to function far better in the underdog role making comments at the edges than he has this past week as a contender. He won the first leg of the race, and he may win in South Carolina later this month too, but he won’t be there at the end.

Mitt Romney, John McCain, or Rudy Giuliani will win the nomination. Each surely faces some serious obstacles. Romney built his hopes on an early win strategy, but Huckabee denied him a first win, McCain may well deny him a second (though that, too, looks less certain now than it did Thursday night), and he continues to have real trouble connecting with voters. McCain is short on cash, and is on the wrong side of the Republican base on immigration — no small problem this year. Giuliani seems somehow to have run out of steam, he has been sinking in the polls, fading in debates, and his late win strategy may prove too late to get him to the finish line.

One of them will overcome these obstacles best, and Iowa frankly did not help us see which one it will be. But after a week of whiplash, we should all take a breath, look again at the fundamentals, and remember that outside the world of die-hard political junkies, the race does not change quite as much quite as quickly as we sometimes like to think.

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

Kathryn Jean Lopez

Finally, Mitt Romney took command Sunday night, emphasized his impressive biography and what his experience and skills have to offer the nation as we face the challenges of war, reforming government, cultural threats, and global competition. Just as he did when he delivered his speech on religion in America before Thanksgiving, Romney sounded like a man who loves his country who has some real leadership to offer it. If we — or more importantly, the people of New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina, Florida, etc., see more of this Mitt Romney — the one I remember being impressed with when he was governor of Massachusetts, fighting Harvard on cloning — he may just win the Republican nomination for president yet. I suspect the White House would be in good hands with a successful executive with a conservative temperament — even if Mike Huckabee has Chuck Norris and a press corps that loves his guitar work.

At these debates this weekend, both Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson exuded — most notably on Sunday night — a conservative maturity. Rudy Giuliani said what needed to be said on the nauseatingly overused change-word in the most visceral way (someone needed to after a weekend of overdosing on the virtues of change): Why change for the sake of change? Let’s talk about what direction we’re talking about.

There are real, important differences in this election — both among Republicans and between Republicans and Democrats. Finally this weekend, as the number of debate participants decreased and the moderators got more serious, those differences really started to become clear. This election isn’t close to over yet.

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

Carrie Lukas

The Republican nomination appears even more up for grabs today than before the Iowa caucus, and the candidates who were strongest just days ago have been weakened.

Governor Romney’s disappointing second place finish in Iowa opened the door for others to become the conservative standard bearer. He showed respectable resilience in the second New Hampshire debate, but if he loses both Iowa and New Hampshire one of his most appealing attributes — his supposed electability — will dissipate. Senator McCain may have helped his chances in winning New Hampshire during the final two debates but, by bashing pharmaceutical companies and defending amnesty proposals, reminded many conservatives why they were reluctant to support him in the first place. As a result, many conservatives may take another look at Senator Thompson, who did well in the recent debates. His consistent conservative record and policy seriousness may come to overshadow his alleged lackadaisical style. If Thompson breaks out in South Carolina, this race could have a new frontrunner.

It is perhaps wishful thinking, but Gov. Huckabee may have hit his high-water mark. He at times appeared evasive in the New Hampshire debates. His win in Iowa has encouraged a closer look at his policy positions and record, and thoughtful conservatives haven’t liked what they’ve seen. A Huckabee nomination would likely shatter the alliance between economic and social conservatives that has kept Republicans winning elections since Reagan.

Mayor Giuliani remains a wild card: significantly weakened, but he could benefit if conservatives fail to coalesce around a candidate by the Florida and New York primaries.

Carrie Lukas is the director of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum.

Shawn Macomber

The 2008 New Hampshire Primary has been the Kubler-Ross Primary, hustling voters through the five stages of political grief:

Denial: If I wait long enough someone with the charisma of Ronald Reagan will arrive with a Jiminy Cricket-sized Newt Gingrich on his shoulder, like a more electable, less mentally disabled version of Master Blaster from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Anger: I wanted Master Blaster. I got Arthur Branch on Quaaludes.

Bargaining: Dear God, if you help me meet Chuck Norris without making Mike Huckabee president, I’ll exchange all my bloomin’ cuss words for Mitt Romney approved golly-isms.

Depression: During the second hour of the 44th debate I was awakened to the true emptiness of the void and my eternal place in it.

Acceptance: There will be a primary. One of these people will be the nominee. But at least I won’t have robots calling my house during dinner any more.

None have benefited from the Kubler-Ross campaign more than John McCain. Somewhere between his campaign going broke and the immigration reform debacle McCain slipped into suspended animation. As the candidates tore one other apart and overstayed their welcome with voters, McCain played possum. Now, on the eve of the primary, McCain is inexplicably the fresh face with buzz. It’s déjà vu all over again. But how will a very much alive candidate McCain fare in South Carolina, Michigan and beyond?

Shawn Macomber, a contributing editor at The American Spectator, is writing a book on the Global Class War.

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