GOP Presidential Debate: Round Two

Last night's GOP presidential debate on Fox News, held in Columbia, South Carolina, was a vast improvement over the first debate on MSNBC.  Smart, tough questions from the moderators.  Prepared, articulate answers from the candidates.  All in all, a worthwhile exercise in presidential primary politics.

Biggest Winner:  Fox News

Last night proved that it is possible to have an intelligent, "round-robin" style debate, with ten candidates at one time.  Great credit goes to Fox News, Brit Hume, Chris Matthews, and Wendell Goler (who asked excellent follow-up questions throughout the debate).  MSNBC and Chris Matthews should be duly embarrassed.

Runner-Up:  Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani's performance during last night's debate was far superior to his stumbling, insecure showing at the last debate.  He came across as confident, determined, and articulate.  He offered clear, forceful views on terrorism, immigration (beefed up border security and "tamper-proof" ID cards for legal immigrants), and the economy (reduce taxes and regulations).  And his answer on abortion -- which has been hashed over many times by now -- was adequate, if not compelling.  I think Giuliani too often cites the endorsements of others (e.g., George Will and Club For Growth) to make his case.  Still, he showed last night why he is the front-runner in the race.

Biggest Loser:  Ron Paul

Paul's answers on terrorism and 9/11 (that U.S. policies largely are to blame for the attacks) and his cavalier, utterly unrealistic, pledges to eliminate multiple federal agencies (e.g., IRS, Education, Commerce, Energy, and Homeland Security) proved once and for all that he is not a serious thinker, let alone a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.  Yes, I agree with his central point that if we truly want to "reform" the federal government, we need to re-think -- and reduce -- our expectations of what government can and should do for our lives.  Nevertheless, Paul clearly lacks a firm grasp of political reality, and is excessively devoted to an ideological vision, regardless of how well that vision conforms with the "facts on the ground" in this country or abroad.

Next-to-Last:  Jim Gilmore

I was impressed by Gilmore's performance at the first debate, and thought he might be able to work his way into serious consideration.  But not after last night.  Not only did he stumble over several of his answers, but his "go negative" approach, this early in the campaign season, demonstrated very poor political judgment as well as a lack of confidence in his own record.  Gilmore may be able to rebound, but he severely hurt his chances last night.

Best Line:  Mike Huckabee

When discussing the need to reduce government spending, Huckabee delivered the most memorable line of the night:  "We've had a Congress that's spending money like John Edwards at a beauty shop."  A truly devastating, Ann Coulter-esque remark that elicited an uproar of laughter and clapping from the audience.

Best Moment:  Giuliani Calling Out Paul

This may be one of the moments that people look back on and say, this is what elected Rudy Giuliani our next president.  After Paul argued that the 9/11 attacks occurred largely because of American actions in the Middle East (e.g., having troops in Saudi Arabia, bombing Iraq during the sanctions period), Giuliani immediately interjected, visibly indignant, "I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11.  I'd ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us he didn't really mean it."  Giuliani expressed what most people listening to Paul were thinking -- and showed enormous "leadership" and "resolve" in that brief, but telling, moment.

Most Outspoken:  Tom Tancredo

Tancredo acquitted himself much better during this debate than during the first.  He appeared to have found his "voice" in the campaign -- to speak the blunt truths that the other candidates are afraid to say aloud.  He made very strong statements about immigration (his "pet" issue), terrorism (identifying Islam itself as a root problem), and global warming (denying that any scientific "consensus" exists -- but I would have liked an even stronger response on this subject, as Tancrdo conceded too much when he argued that reducing our dependence on petroleum itself is a "national security" issue).

Nice Guy Award:  Mike Huckabee

Huckabee truly is a charming, likeable fellow.  But he comes across more like a friendly small-town State Farm agent than President of the United States.  His excessively folksy manner, as authentic as it seems, just isn't what the country is looking for in our top leader.

Worst Answer:  Sam Brownback

Brownback's statement that he opposes abortion rights even in cases of rape was the worst answer given on any subject by any candidate last night.  Politically, hardly any Americans, even those who consider themselves pro life, agree with such an extreme anti-abortion position.  I suspect that more people in the country believe that 9/11 was "an inside job" than would agree with Brownback on this point.  Moreover, even from a moral perspective, I think this is a monstrous position to hold.  While an impregnated rape victim may decide that she prefers not to have an abortion, her rights in this horrific scenario (however infrequent it might occur) clearly outweigh those of the innocent fetus.  Every Republican candidate should disavow Brownback's position on this point.  They cannot allow the Democrats to use such extremist views to tar the party in the eyes of the American people.

Invisible Man:  Tommy Thompson

After his solid, but undistinguished performance during the first debate, Thompson needed to show he has the leadership qualities to be president.  He didn't.  Of all the candidates last night, Thompson made the least impression on me.  His low point came when he was asked to identify three government programs he would cut, and he couldn't come up with anything specific.  This from the man who was Secretary of Health and Human Services, the second largest department of the federal government.  Surely, there were three programs he wanted to cut from HHS during his tenure.  Thompson's campaign is going nowhere.

Pat Buchanan Lite:  Duncan Hunter

Hunter takes strong, pro-American positions on immigration (which I wholeheartedly support) and foreign trade (which I'm not so sure about).  Sort of like Pat Buchanan.  But he lacks Buchanan's intellectual firepower and rhetorical flair.  Like Tancredo, Hunter strikes me as someone we want in Congress.  But I don't think he is ready to lead the country.

Biggest Hits:  John McCain

McCain took some big hits last night, especially over campaign finance reform (McCain-Feingold), comprehensive immigration reform (McCain-Kennedy), and his opposition to the Bush tax cuts.  McCain's alliances with leading liberals and his willingness to support key elements of the Democrats' domestic agenda does not sit well with many Republican voters.  (I don't recall if his leading role in the "Gang of 14" regarding judicial nominations was also mentioned.)  The weaknesses in McCain's candidacy were exposed last night.  While he still is one of the "big three" in the race, I think he is in third place, behind Giuliani and Romney.

Running-in-Place:  Mitt Romney

I don't think Romney gained or lost ground last night.  His performance, as always, was prepared, polished, and confident.  There were no real low points, but no highs, either.  My impression is that Romney just doesn't inspire people.  He is the "competent" candidate.  If Giuliani fails to live up to the expectations for his candidacy, Romney will be there to take his place on the ticket.  But this is Giuliani's nomination to lose.  If he runs a strong campaign -- which he has not really done before last night -- Romney cannot beat him.

Steven M. Warshawsky 
Last night's GOP presidential debate on Fox News, held in Columbia, South Carolina, was a vast improvement over the first debate on MSNBC.  Smart, tough questions from the moderators.  Prepared, articulate answers from the candidates.  All in all, a worthwhile exercise in presidential primary politics.

Biggest Winner:  Fox News

Last night proved that it is possible to have an intelligent, "round-robin" style debate, with ten candidates at one time.  Great credit goes to Fox News, Brit Hume, Chris Matthews, and Wendell Goler (who asked excellent follow-up questions throughout the debate).  MSNBC and Chris Matthews should be duly embarrassed.

Runner-Up:  Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani's performance during last night's debate was far superior to his stumbling, insecure showing at the last debate.  He came across as confident, determined, and articulate.  He offered clear, forceful views on terrorism, immigration (beefed up border security and "tamper-proof" ID cards for legal immigrants), and the economy (reduce taxes and regulations).  And his answer on abortion -- which has been hashed over many times by now -- was adequate, if not compelling.  I think Giuliani too often cites the endorsements of others (e.g., George Will and Club For Growth) to make his case.  Still, he showed last night why he is the front-runner in the race.

Biggest Loser:  Ron Paul

Paul's answers on terrorism and 9/11 (that U.S. policies largely are to blame for the attacks) and his cavalier, utterly unrealistic, pledges to eliminate multiple federal agencies (e.g., IRS, Education, Commerce, Energy, and Homeland Security) proved once and for all that he is not a serious thinker, let alone a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.  Yes, I agree with his central point that if we truly want to "reform" the federal government, we need to re-think -- and reduce -- our expectations of what government can and should do for our lives.  Nevertheless, Paul clearly lacks a firm grasp of political reality, and is excessively devoted to an ideological vision, regardless of how well that vision conforms with the "facts on the ground" in this country or abroad.

Next-to-Last:  Jim Gilmore

I was impressed by Gilmore's performance at the first debate, and thought he might be able to work his way into serious consideration.  But not after last night.  Not only did he stumble over several of his answers, but his "go negative" approach, this early in the campaign season, demonstrated very poor political judgment as well as a lack of confidence in his own record.  Gilmore may be able to rebound, but he severely hurt his chances last night.

Best Line:  Mike Huckabee

When discussing the need to reduce government spending, Huckabee delivered the most memorable line of the night:  "We've had a Congress that's spending money like John Edwards at a beauty shop."  A truly devastating, Ann Coulter-esque remark that elicited an uproar of laughter and clapping from the audience.

Best Moment:  Giuliani Calling Out Paul

This may be one of the moments that people look back on and say, this is what elected Rudy Giuliani our next president.  After Paul argued that the 9/11 attacks occurred largely because of American actions in the Middle East (e.g., having troops in Saudi Arabia, bombing Iraq during the sanctions period), Giuliani immediately interjected, visibly indignant, "I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11.  I'd ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us he didn't really mean it."  Giuliani expressed what most people listening to Paul were thinking -- and showed enormous "leadership" and "resolve" in that brief, but telling, moment.

Most Outspoken:  Tom Tancredo

Tancredo acquitted himself much better during this debate than during the first.  He appeared to have found his "voice" in the campaign -- to speak the blunt truths that the other candidates are afraid to say aloud.  He made very strong statements about immigration (his "pet" issue), terrorism (identifying Islam itself as a root problem), and global warming (denying that any scientific "consensus" exists -- but I would have liked an even stronger response on this subject, as Tancrdo conceded too much when he argued that reducing our dependence on petroleum itself is a "national security" issue).

Nice Guy Award:  Mike Huckabee

Huckabee truly is a charming, likeable fellow.  But he comes across more like a friendly small-town State Farm agent than President of the United States.  His excessively folksy manner, as authentic as it seems, just isn't what the country is looking for in our top leader.

Worst Answer:  Sam Brownback

Brownback's statement that he opposes abortion rights even in cases of rape was the worst answer given on any subject by any candidate last night.  Politically, hardly any Americans, even those who consider themselves pro life, agree with such an extreme anti-abortion position.  I suspect that more people in the country believe that 9/11 was "an inside job" than would agree with Brownback on this point.  Moreover, even from a moral perspective, I think this is a monstrous position to hold.  While an impregnated rape victim may decide that she prefers not to have an abortion, her rights in this horrific scenario (however infrequent it might occur) clearly outweigh those of the innocent fetus.  Every Republican candidate should disavow Brownback's position on this point.  They cannot allow the Democrats to use such extremist views to tar the party in the eyes of the American people.

Invisible Man:  Tommy Thompson

After his solid, but undistinguished performance during the first debate, Thompson needed to show he has the leadership qualities to be president.  He didn't.  Of all the candidates last night, Thompson made the least impression on me.  His low point came when he was asked to identify three government programs he would cut, and he couldn't come up with anything specific.  This from the man who was Secretary of Health and Human Services, the second largest department of the federal government.  Surely, there were three programs he wanted to cut from HHS during his tenure.  Thompson's campaign is going nowhere.

Pat Buchanan Lite:  Duncan Hunter

Hunter takes strong, pro-American positions on immigration (which I wholeheartedly support) and foreign trade (which I'm not so sure about).  Sort of like Pat Buchanan.  But he lacks Buchanan's intellectual firepower and rhetorical flair.  Like Tancredo, Hunter strikes me as someone we want in Congress.  But I don't think he is ready to lead the country.

Biggest Hits:  John McCain

McCain took some big hits last night, especially over campaign finance reform (McCain-Feingold), comprehensive immigration reform (McCain-Kennedy), and his opposition to the Bush tax cuts.  McCain's alliances with leading liberals and his willingness to support key elements of the Democrats' domestic agenda does not sit well with many Republican voters.  (I don't recall if his leading role in the "Gang of 14" regarding judicial nominations was also mentioned.)  The weaknesses in McCain's candidacy were exposed last night.  While he still is one of the "big three" in the race, I think he is in third place, behind Giuliani and Romney.

Running-in-Place:  Mitt Romney

I don't think Romney gained or lost ground last night.  His performance, as always, was prepared, polished, and confident.  There were no real low points, but no highs, either.  My impression is that Romney just doesn't inspire people.  He is the "competent" candidate.  If Giuliani fails to live up to the expectations for his candidacy, Romney will be there to take his place on the ticket.  But this is Giuliani's nomination to lose.  If he runs a strong campaign -- which he has not really done before last night -- Romney cannot beat him.

Steven M. Warshawsky