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A New Race

McCain makes a comeback and Thompson jumps in.

12:00 AM, Sep 6, 2007 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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SINCE MAY, the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination has been characterized by an unusual dynamic. At a time when national security issues are the foremost concern of GOP primary voters, a war hero with substantial experience defending the use of American power in Iraq and beyond has seen his support in national and state public opinion polls erode precipitously. That hero, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, saw his frontrunner status evaporate as two men who had not served in the U.S. armed forces--former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney--dominated in fundraising and local and national public support. Many political analysts, reflecting widespread sentiment among Republican elites, saw McCain as irrelevant to the race and likely to withdraw.

Not anymore. Wednesday night's Fox News Channel debate saw McCain reassert his place in the top tier of Republican contenders. And it was his answers on critical foreign policy questions involving Gen. David Petraeus's "surge" strategy in Iraq, the interrogation techniques deployed on enemy detainees, and the use of military force against Iran that established his strong position. It increasingly seems clear that illegal immigration, the issue which dominated the Republican race throughout the spring and summer, and an issue on which McCain stands directly opposed to many in his party, will not be the issue on which the nomination is decided. To put it another way: Foreign policy has come home to roost.

Romney's defense of the surge was weak. In fact, he did not bother to defend it, reserving judgment until Gen. Petraeus addresses Congress on September 10. Romney said the surge was "apparently" working--at which point McCain found an opening to attack. "Governor, the surge is working," he said, going on to defend the policy and reminding voters that he has called for this strategy and increased troop levels since 2003. Flummoxed, Romney tried to recover, but failed. And Romney left an additional opening for McCain to attack his call for U.S. troops to move into a "support" role in Iraq--a strategic change that the latest National Intelligence Estimate has said would erase the security gains the surge has made so far.

McCain also drew a connection between his military service and his views on the treatment of enemy detainees, while highlighting the fact (though not explicitly) that Romney and Giuliani are not veterans. McCain was allowed the final words of the debate, responding to a question on Iran's nuclear programs. And both Giuliani and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said kind words about the senator.

A lot is still to come in the race for the Republican presidential nomination and it's likely that Fred Thompson's entry will overshadow last night's debate. But when the history of the 2008 campaign is written, September 5 will likely be remembered as important. It's the day when many commentators' assumptions about the race were overthrown--and the fight was joined in full by every combatant.

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.