FOR THE 83rd time since September, the GOP candidates gathered for a debate, this time in lovely Boca Raton. Because of the unforgiving Darwinian nature of politics, fate had thinned the GOP herd to its bare essentials. And Ron Paul.
It took thirty minutes into the debate before the candidates discussed anything other than the economy. The candidates had a chance to change the subject earlier as Tim Russert all but urged Romney and Huckabee to go on the attack, but both eschewed the attack option and stuck to pocketbook issues. Seems like all the contenders (and Rudy) sense that the candidate who wins the nomination will do so by proving himself "the guy" on the economy. We've happily reached a stage where personal attacks bring diminishing returns.
So how'd they do? Individual reports are below:
Mitt Romney: The debate started with Brian Williams asking Romney about the stimulus package that will soon be lining the pockets of ordinary Americans. It's becoming apparent in this campaign that asking Romney a question on economics is roughly the equivalent of asking Mike Huckabee a question on the Bible. It's where Romney's most comfortable, and the national conversation shifting to what's effectively his home turf was quite the stroke of luck. Romney also deserves some credit for riding this wave of good fortune and staying on message.
It's no secret that I'm a Romney guy. But I've also been critical of him when his performances or tactics so warranted. With that preamble out of the way, I must unequivocally state that last night was an enormously successful evening for Romney. He's a serious guy, and a capable one. That came through last night.
And if Romney remains the serious candidate with serious ideas, he'll actually have a shot in the general election.
John McCain: McCain doesn't seem particularly comfortable talking about economic issues. In response to the question regarding the stimulus, McCain mentioned that he has voted twice to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Oddly, he didn't mention that he voted against them when he had the chance. Tim Russert and Mitt Romney both helpfully reminded him of this oversight.
Generally speaking, it wasn't a good night for straight talk. Tim Russert asked McCain about his 2005 comment (reported in the Wall Street Journal) when he said, ""I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated." McCain denied ever having said that, but the Romney campaign quickly pounced on the erroneous denial and sourced the quote.
In an attempt to burnish his economic bona fides, McCain mentioned Phil Gramm an astonishing four times. It's bad enough when the candidates run on the legacy of luminaries like Ronald Reagan. But Phil Gramm? I'm normally not much of a fan of focus groups, but the McCain campaign really should consider focus-grouping the Phil Gramm references. I bet the McCain brain trust will find they're not particularly helpful.
It's odd, McCain could parry the line about his relative economic inexperience by pointing to his strengths. He could say something like, "We all bring different specialties to this race. Mayor Giuliani knows more about running a big city than any of the rest of us. Governor Romney knows more about running a successful company in the private sector. Governor Huckabee knows more about being friends with Chuck Norris. My areas of expertise are in the military. Respectfully, I know more about fighting and winning a war than any of my friends up here. (See--I've even put this speechlet into McCain's preferred patois!) Beyond our areas of expertise, we'll all have to rely on our principles and our advisors. My principles regarding the economy are letting the citizens keep more of their money and having government make do with less."
But that really wouldn't be John McCain, would it? Could he allow himself to concede any area where he's less qualified than his contenders, let alone a bunch of them? The rationale for the McCain candidacy has become backward looking, and has grown old almost overnight. McCain was right on the surge. He's been right on earmarks. He served his country nobly for his entire adult life. But without adding anything greater than Jack Kemp's support to his stellar record, McCain runs the risk of tacitly arguing that he deserves the presidency as a kind of promotion.
Mike Huckabee: You know it, I know it, we may as well admit it--we're going to miss Mike Huckabee when primary season is over. (Unless of course he wins, in which case we'll be wishing we were missing him.) That line about being the only guy at the UN without a headset was not only funny but original. And the Chuck Norris stuff was classic. He's also begun to use references like an Everyman version of Dennis Miller. First, he's analogizing Saddam's WMDs to Easter eggs. Then, he's relating the IRS to the horse sense of Doctor Phil. He's enormously entertaining.
Demerits, though, for that mean little joke about the Romney progeny's inheritance. Nevertheless, it was an instructive moment regarding the meanness and smallness that always lies at the heart of populism.
Rudy Giuliani: It's the first time Rudy's been relevant going into one of these debates since the campaign's Jurassic Era. He was at times funny and engaging, but he looked a little rusty and unsure of exactly what he wanted to get done. The other guys with a chance obviously had a plan. Romney was intent on playing on his home court, the economy. McCain was determined to reassure Republicans that he's economically conservative.
What did Rudy want to get done tonight? Beats me. And I bet a lot of other viewers don't have a clue, either. Which is probably a pretty good sign that whatever he wanted to get done, he didn't.
Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.