Durham, New Hampshire
NO PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATION or election has ever been won on the basis of a performance in a debate. But candidates can help or hurt themselves. Last night in New Hampshire, John McCain helped himself and Mitt Romney hurt himself. And while Rudy Giuliani was no slouch, he became tedious by droning on about his accomplishments as mayor of New York. The five other Republican presidential candidates didn't matter much. Fred Thompson, who announced his candidacy last night on TV, was a no-show.
McCain was ready and eager to stress his muscular position in favor of the "surge" in Iraq, and he had plenty of opportunity to do so. The key moment came after Romney said the surge was "apparently working," and McCain challenged him. "No, not apparently, it's working," McCain responded sharply.
Romney, the ex-governor of Massachusetts, said he wants to wait to hear from General David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq who will testify before Congress next week, before rendering a less equivocal verdict. McCain took exception to that, too. There's no reason to wait, he indicated. The success of the surge--involving more troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy--"is more than apparent. It's working."
The alacrity with which McCain went after Romney on Iraq reflected the Arizona senator's view that Romney shades or modifies his position on the war, depending on his audience. After the debate, McCain aides accused Romney of having three different positions on Iraq in four days.
That was an exaggeration. But Romney's tone and tack on Iraq were noticeably different last Sunday when he answered an antiwar questioner in Nashua. Then, he agreed Iraq is a "mess" and said he has a three-stage plan for the war, leading to the complete withdrawal of American troops. The soldiers would be deployed outside Iraq and "would be available if needed," he said.
And Romney said he sees his plan, including the final withdrawal, "happening relatively soon." He didn't offer a timetable. But the second phase, with Americans out of combat and assigned to train Iraqi troops, might begin next year. In any case, his three-stage strategy seemed to distance him perceptibly from President Bush on Iraq.
At the debate last night here at the University of New Hampshire, Romney explicitly moved back toward Bush, identifying himself with the president's desire to begin withdrawing troops as soon as the surge is successful. He is "committed to success in Iraq," Romney insisted, but wants the United States to "not have a permanent presence in Iraq." Bush, however, believes some American troops will have to be stationed in Iraq for years.
The McCain-Romney clash, mild but pointed, was the most consequential dispute of the debate. A squabble over Iraq between Ron Paul, who wants an immediate evacuation of U.S. troops, and Mike Huckabee was noisier and more emotional, but it showed what we already knew: Paul rants and Huckabee can hold his own.
That Romney may be vulnerable on Iraq--at least McCain thinks so--is new. And McCain is now certain to prolong his quarrel with Romney as he embarks on what his campaign has dubbed the "No Surrender" tour.
Romney is not an easy target, however. His position on Iraq has been a study in flexibility, though he's never come close to opposing Bush on the war. To counter McCain, he may simply invigorate his support for Bush and the surge.
Besides McCain, Romney's biggest problem at the debate was that he got most of the tough questions. One particularly harsh one, piped in from a restaurant, came from the father of a soldier in Iraq. He said he'd been offended by Romney's likening his sons' service in his campaign to military service. Romney politely said there "is no comparison."
How far McCain went last night in reviving his battered campaign is unclear. A single strong debate performance can't, by itself, resurrect a candidacy. But it can help by guaranteeing McCain more press coverage--and more respectful treatment, at that--and perhaps a bump in the polls that come out almost daily.
By the way, a focus group of 29 New Hampshire Republicans conducted during the debate by pollster Frank Luntz found McCain to be the winner. He exceeded the expectations of the group, while Giuliani disappointed them.
Giuliani has shined in every Republican debate until last night's. He made only one mistake, focusing to the point of wretched excess on his success as mayor of New York in areas other than 9/11. The public knows he saved the city and made it safe. A gentle reminder is all that's required to spotlight this achievement.