THERE WAS GOOD news and bad news for Mitt Romney from the debate last night in California: He probably won, but it's not likely to matter.
Presidential debates happen in moments and Romney had several good ones. At the very beginning of the debate, Romney defended his record as Massachusetts governor from criticism leveled by John McCain. He gently corrected McCain when McCain mistakenly claimed that Romney's lieutenant governor had been campaigning with him. (It was Romney's predecessor.) The rest of his answer was equally authoritative and he certainly sounds commanding when he talks about the economy.
But some of the biggest moments of the debate came during discussions of national security. McCain wins those debates-within-the-debate simply because they are having them. I suspect that Romney's complaints about the timing of McCain's Iraq-focused attacks will not resonate with voters, seeming a bit whiny in the midst of a debate about who is better capable of winning wars. You can see what Romney was trying to do--demonstrate that for all of McCain's talk about a different kind of politics, he is old school--but it did not work. For one thing, Romney later in the debate praised McCain's "integrity," an odd thing to do after accusing your opponent of dirty politics.
McCain's second charge against Romney on the surge--that Romney opted out of the Iraq debate in December 2006 for political reasons at precisely the time when McCain and President Bush were pushing Republicans to support a surge--is a good one. (That has always been a stronger argument for McCain to make than hitting Romney on the "secret timetables." That said, I'm not persuaded by those who argue that McCain is "lying" about Romney's comments. Romney was asked about withdrawal. The question matters.) Romney, who was at the time running a sophisticated presidential campaign, defended his weak answer by repeating it. "I was running a state." That's not leadership.
But after all of the back-and-forthing on who said what and who meant what, one reality is likely to emerge for voters who care most about national security: John McCain enthusiastically supported the surge, the key course correction in a battle that all Republicans call the "central front" in the war on terror--and he did so at great political risk.
Still, McCain had several moments that will anger conservatives. His line that he worked "for patriotism, not for profit" is bad. Romney rightly suggested that small business owners will be offended at the implication that profits are somehow ignoble. McCain earns a lot of support because of his service--military and political. But people know it without him touting his own patriotism.
McCain threw a sharp elbow at Romney for laying people off during his time as a venture capitalist. It was unwise and undignified. I imagine his advisers all cringed at the substance and timing of it.
Finally, McCain's shtick about global warming will send shivers down the spine of pro-business conservatives who understand that McCain's eagerness to promote "green technologies" will come at a cost.
CNN did a good job with the debate and their focus on McCain and Romney was appropriate. Having the question posed to the candidates appear on the screen as candidates answered--or chose not to--is a great idea, as voters can see just how far afield some of the responses go.
Perhaps the moment of the night came immediately after the debate. Within minutes of its conclusion, CNN had a "breaking news" alert across the screen touting Arnold Schwarzenegger's endorsement of McCain tomorrow. So although I thought Romney had a strong performance tonight overall, the Schwarzenegger news will step all over it. With more big endorsements for McCain coming in the next few days, I'm told, Romney could have trouble winning a news cycle before Super Tuesday.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.