Last night's Republican debate raised a very puzzling question: Do Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee want John McCain to be the GOP nominee?
The debate, hosted on Fox News, was the third in the space of five days, but the situation has dramatically changed since the back-to-back meetings of this past weekend. McCain won the New Hampshire primary, and he has jumped to leads in next week's contests in Michigan and South Carolina. If he manages to win both of those primaries, it would become very difficult for his rivals to stop his momentum and prevent the party's establishment from rallying around the Arizona Senator.
Yet, none of the candidates was interested in going after John McCain tonight; the contrast could not have been greater with last Saturday's ABC debate in which the entire field piled on Mitt Romney, sensing an opportunity to knock him out of contention. Giuliani did take a small swipe against his " friend, John" but it was only in order to point out that he deserves some credit for the surge as well. "There were other people on this stage supporting the surge," he complained.
Fred Thompson did himself a lot of good last night; mocked as a lazy candidate unwilling to get as tough as he needs, he surprised many watchers by coming right out of the gate bashing Huckabee. Listing his rival's apostasies on Guantanamo Bay, on taxes and on a national smoking ban, Thompson concluded, "That's not the model of the Reagan coalition; that's the model of the Democratic Party." Thompson obviously feels that a strong South Carolina showing requires taking Huckabee down a peg, and if this intense attack continues in the coming week and is maybe picked up by other candidates it could certainly knock Huckabee off-balance.
But that would first and foremost help John McCain whose main rival in South Carolina right now is Huckabee. With Romney and McCain planning on spending much of this week in Michigan, Huckabee was hoping to have the Palmetto State all to himself. But McCain must be delighted to see that he can count on Thompson to do the dirty job.
Fox News boosted McCain further by pushing him to take the lead in the Ron Paul bashing. In every debate, the Republican candidates battle to look like the most anti-Paul on stage and they usually do so by engaging the libertarian the most aggressively and drawing him out in a back-and-forth that will make them look tough on national security. Last night, Fox News repeatedly cut to a sighing and exasperated-looking McCain as Paul was denouncing America's foreign policy and empire-building, and they prompted the Senator to respond to Paul's claim. McCain happily obliged with a series of one-liners and as a result he got a lot of air time to defend George W. Bush's policies and he made sure to emphasize his responsibility in bringing about the Iraq surge.
This is not to say that Ron Paul is losing these debates. The extent to which Ron Paul has been hijacking these debates is remarkable. When it comes to foreign policy, Ron Paul is granted rebuttal and rebuttal to make his case and explain how the Republican Party has strayed from its conservative roots. Boosted by cheering Paulites in the crowd, the candidate stood his ground tonight, and it is time to wonder what effect he could have in the general election if he decides to run as an independent.
But Paul aside, the winner of this debate could not be more clear. By being left untouched for 90 minutes, McCain prevailed tonight. With nine days to go to South Carolina, the GOP candidates will have to confront John McCain at some point; and it could soon be too late.
More campaign news and analysis on the author's blog at Campaign Diaries.