Columbia, SC

ONE THING, and one thing only, happened at the Republican presidential debate last night: Rudy Giuliani escaped the clutches of the abortion issue. As a pro-choice advocate in a pro-life party, Giuliani had let abortion dog him for weeks and nearly define his candidacy. But in a few emotional moments in the debate, he grabbed the national security issue and didn't let go. It trumped abortion and, for now at least, it's the issue that's likely to come to mind when reporters and commentators and Republican voters think about Giuliani.

Sure, there was a clash between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Arizona senator John McCain, but it didn't amount to much. Giuliani, Romney, and McCain were attacked by name by ex-Virginia governor Jim Gilmore as phony conservatives. And Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, accused Republicans in Washington of having "spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop." If you don't get that joke, you haven't been following the presidential campaign.

All this, however, was less than memorable. The debate--the significance of the debate anyway--was all about Giuliani. Given the chance to rise above the squabble over this view of abortion, he seized the opportunity and got the biggest cheers from the packed auditorium of 2,500 Republicans. We're too far from the first actual contest in the presidential race next January for this to be a watershed moment. But it should give Giuliani as big a boost as possible from a debate watched by only a few million people.

What Giuliani leaped on was Texas representative Ron Paul's comment that Islamic jihadists attacked America on 9/11 because "we'd been over there" in the Middle East. Paul didn't say flatly that America had invited the attack, but he came mighty close to that.

"I don't think I've ever heard that before and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11," Guiliani responded. He said Paul should "withdraw" the statement. The crowd roared its approval. Paul didn't comply. Instead, he said America's intervention in 1953 to help topple the Iranian government led to the taking of American hostages in 1979 in Teheran by Iranian radicals--a dubious charge, to say the least.

At that point, it might have been interesting to involve the other eight candidates in the 9/11 issue. But the debate turned to other matters--the Confederate flag on the capitol grounds here in Columbia, the release of a criminal in Arkansas, global warming.

But Giuliani scored again minutes later on another national security issue: the interrogation of captured terrorists. If a terrorist was thought to know about a future attack, how tough should his questioners be? Should they use the same "enhanced interrogation techniques" that worked on al Qaeda leaders? Giuliani endorsed these techniques. Even if they included torture? The interrogators should use "every method they could think of" to save Americans from another attack. Once more, the audience applauded.

As for the others, McCain had a considerably better performance than in the first Republican debate at the Reagan Library in California earlier in May. Then, he larded his answers with chunks of his stump speech. This time, he was more relaxed and spontaneous. He "wore well," noted Democratic consultant Pat Caddell.

Romney, on the other hand, didn't do as well as in the first debate. He took more hits from his rivals and also got a series of hard questions. He didn't wear quite as well, though he is always likeable and ready to defend himself aggressively.

In early debates like last night's, the tactic of frontrunners is usually caution, based on the calculation there's little to gain and maybe a lot to lose from a risky comment. So it's up to the also-rans to throw caution to the wind and stir disagreement.

Paul did his part, but Giuliani wisely didn't act like a smug frontrunner. He saw an opening when others didn't, jumped in, and made the debate his own.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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