Manchester, N.H.– If you think things got a bit testy between John McCain and Mitt Romney during the ABC News debate here at St. Anselm College Saturday night, you didn’t see the half of it. After the debate, when top campaign aides and surrogates came to the Spin Room to tout their candidates’ performances, members of the Romney and McCain camps said the things their bosses might have been thinking but did not dare utter onstage.
McCain delivered “cheap shots,” said one Romney adviser. Another called McCain’s criticisms of Romney “snide remarks” and “name calling.” Yet another said they were “unbecoming.” All of which caused Mark Salter, McCain’s closest aide, to go off.
“Come on, Mitt, tighten up your chin strap,” Salter, standing just a few feet away from the Romney team, told reporters. “Of all the ludicrous suggestions – Mitt Romney whining about being attacked, when he has predicated an entire campaign plan on whoever serially looks like the biggest challenger gets, whatever, $20 million dropped on his head and gets his positions distorted. Give me a break. It’s nothing more than a guy who dishes it out from 30,000 feet altitude and then gets down in the arena and somebody says, O.K. Mitt, gives him a little pop back, and he starts whining. That’s unbecoming.”
What had McCain aides particularly heated was Romney’s exchange with McCain on the issue of McCain’s immigration proposals and the question of amnesty. “The fact is, it’s not amnesty,” McCain said during the debate. “And for you to describe it as you do in the attack ads, my friend, you can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but it still won’t be true.”
“I don’t describe your plan as amnesty in my ad,” Romney answered. “I don’t call it amnesty.”
With that, the issue became not whether McCain’s plan was or was not amnesty but whether Romney had or had not called it amnesty. And jaws dropped at McCain headquarters.
“What got us all going was when Governor Romney said, ‘We never called what you did amnesty,’“ said McCain confidante Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “Look on TV. Look in your mailbox in New Hampshire. John’s been pounded by Governor Romney with that charge. I was just dumbstruck.”
Indeed, after the debate, McCain aides produced a Romney mailing which said “John McCain: Supports Amnesty.” An e-mail from the Romney campaign earlier in the day referred to McCain’s “amnesty plan.” And a new Romney TV ad featured Romney supporters saying McCain “supported amnesty for illegal immigrants” and “wrote the amnesty bill.” In light of that, it is hard to see how Romney was being straight when he said he didn’t “describe [McCain’s] plan as amnesty.” After the debate, Romney’s spokesman, Kevin Madden, choosing his words carefully, said McCain favored “an amnesty-like approach.”
What was really playing out in the amnesty fight was the growing antipathy between the McCain and Romney camps as the New Hampshire primary approaches. Each man’s fortunes pretty much depend on what happens next Tuesday, and a new CNN/WMUR poll, released a couple of hours before the debate, showed McCain with a six-point lead over Romney, 33 percent to 27 percent. Romney has been on the attack because he is behind with little time to catch up. And when it came time to debate, the bad feelings bubbled up onstage.
In the end, they overshadowed some other noteworthy aspects of the debate. The first was the solid performance of Fred Thompson. He was sharp and focused, making his own points effectively as well as sometimes picking apart his opponents’ positions. But Thompson, at one percent in the new poll, wasn’t trying to win over New Hampshire voters. He’s only in New Hampshire because that is where the national press is, and that is where back-to-back Republican debates are being held this weekend.
“Forget about New Hampshire,” Thompson aide Karen Hanretty said after the debate. “We’ll get two or three percent in New Hampshire. We have no illusions about that. And a debate, I don’t think, is going to change that.” Indeed, Thompson has no plans to campaign in New Hampshire while he is here, and on Monday, before the voting in New Hampshire, he will head to South Carolina, where he will make the stand that will either make or break his candidacy.
For his part, Rudy Giuliani also delivered a solid performance, with impressive discussions of terrorism and immigration. But the winner of the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee, turned in his weakest performance ever in a GOP debate, bobbling national security questions and attempting to finesse what he meant when he wrote, in an article in Foreign Affairs, that the Bush administration had an arrogant bunker mentality. Although Huckabee gave good answers on health care and the policy differences between himself and Barack Obama, he simply wasn’t up to the standards he has set for himself. Afterward, his top aides stayed out of the Spin Room — while they might have wanted to avoid talking about a sub-par performance, they also, apparently, wanted to let the various Romney-related feuds take center stage. No harm in that, from Huckabee’s point of view.
So now the candidates get ready to turn around and do it again tonight, in a forum sponsored by Fox News. When that happens, the voting will be 24 hours nearer, so don’t look for the tone to change.