With John McCain potentially days away from cementing his front-runner status with a win in Florida, his rivals had one more chance to stop him at the GOP debate. And just as in every other debate over the past few weeks -- as well as on the campaign trail -- the Republican field chose to play nice and stay away from attacking each other.
In the second segment of the debate, the candidates were to ask one question to another candidate. That half-hour perfectly illustrated the dynamics of the Florida race. The first two questions came from Romney and McCain and, instead of attacking each other, both threw a very easy softball to the person they want to help most. Romney asked Giuliani (who is competing for votes with McCain) to discuss China's role, while McCain asked Huckabee (whose conservative electorate is the one Romney is trying to seduce) to explain the "resonance" the issue of the Fair Tax is meeting across the country. This allowed Giuliani to play on his tough guy image and Huckabee to remind viewers of his conservative credentials.
Next came Huckabee, who chose to go after Mitt Romney on his inconsistencies regarding the Second Amendment, in what was one of the debate's only harsh moments. Huckabee has been playing nice to McCain for a while now; he is rather obviously vying for the Senator's VP spot. Huckabee's reluctance to say anything but complimentary words about his rival were a big factor in McCain's survival in South Carolina. Later in the debate, asked about surrogate Chuck Norris's comment that McCain was too old to be president, Huckabee went on and on about his admiration for McCain. Finally, the fact that Huckabee went after Romney only this one time (if you don't count a strange jab at how Romney should not self-fund his campaign to save his children's inheritance) was great news for the former Massachusetts Governor who had found himself relentlessly attacked in past debates. This time, Huckabee stayed away -- and so did everyone else.
Giuliani's question, finally, exemplified the extent to which candidates went to avoid direct negativity. Giuliani wanted to bring up the issue of the national catastrophic fund; he approves of it and McCain does not, in what is a rare clear policy difference on what is a big issue in Florida. Giuliani has been criticizing McCain for his opposition but had already been shying away from confrontation as he has only been airing a web ad on the subject. Tonight, Giuliani used his question to address the fund. He first made sure to remind viewers that McCain was against the it. And while drawing that distinction was obviously the point of his question, Giuliani ended up aiming his question at... Romney, in a rather awkward shift. (For those who are wondering, Romney is fine with the idea).
These dynamics continued throughout the debate. And because of that, the edge has to be given to the two front-runners in the state, Mitt Romney and John McCain. They both had difficult moments but since no one challenged them during those both candidates went out of the 90 minutes entirely unscathed. Giuliani and Huckabee, therefore, did not do what they had to do tonight. Both had crowd-pleasing moments, but Huckabee's jokes are getting old and Giuliani's constant attacks on the New York Times will only get him so far.
McCain can breath a huge sigh of relief. Considering how much time was devoted to tax cuts during the debate, McCain could have been in a mountain of trouble. Instead, his rivals let him go on about his attachment to the 1980s and Reaganism without engaging him on his two votes against the Bush tax cuts. Furthermore, one of the big problems of his candidacy is the conservatives' distrust of him and the fact that he got so much air time explaining why he is a true Reagan conservative (without being ever challenged) should be good to reassure voters.
But a small edge should be given to Romney for the simple reason that the debate was devoted mostly to the economy. There was little discussion of national security and Iraq, which McCain is more comfortable talking about, whereas Romney is most at ease on economic topics (McCain was directly asked by Tim Russert about a quote in which he explains his lack of economic knowledge and denied he had ever said that, though the quote is confirmed, from 2005). To Florida viewers that were not familiar with Romney, this served as a good introduction and Romney probably made a strong impression displaying his comfort with financial matters and his experience in the private sector.
And the last winner tonight was... Hillary Clinton. This was the first debate in a while in which the Republicans chose to make Clinton into the boogie man of everything wrong with this country. Remember, at the New Hampshire debate a few weeks back, the discussion was entirely centered on Barack Obama. Tonight, the presumptive Democratic nominee was Hillary Clinton again and she got pounded by Republican candidates eager to show their conservative bona fides. For Clinton who built much of her candidacy by looking inevitable and rallying the base against Republican attacks, this is a welcome return to 2007.
More news and commentary on the author's blog, at Campaign Diaries.
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