The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.
It looked like any other Republican debate: same attitudes, same topics, same platforms. Except that Rudy Giuliani was a woman, Mike Huckabee was black, and Ron Paul was really, really tall.
Welcome to the New York Young Republicans Mock Debate and Straw poll.
There's not much in the way of campaigning in New York City. In the eyes of the candidates, New York City isn't a destination filled with voters--it's more like an ATM. Candidates drop in occasionally, attend a high-priced fundraiser, maybe stop to do a TV show, then run out again to a place like New Hampshire or Iowa, where they'll go to a local diner and shake hands and talk about things like the local team. That doesn't happen very often here.
But with only a little more than a month until the Iowa caucuses, New Yorkers are trying to stay involved...and interested.
Enter the mock debate. Held at the New York Young Republican Club's headquarters on the Upper East Side, the debate featured candidates' supporters stepping in and speaking for several of the Republican hopefuls. Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney were represented; Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, and the irrepressible Fred Thompson were not. Sorry fellows!
The debate began with a cry for peace and unity within the party, "We are all Republicans here, speak out on your candidate's positions, do not trash each other--save the venom for Hillary Clinton." (Good idea to save time and energy by getting in the obligatory Hillary Clinton shot right way; hopefully any potential Democrat mock debate organizers were paying attention).
The debaters fielded questions on the issues you would expect: taxes, reducing spending, earmarks, farm subsidies, education, second amendment rights, abortion, energy policy, health care, illegal immigration, and the war on terror.
What was more interesting was how it was said. The debaters didn't necessarily speak like the candidates, but they handled the debate in the same way the candidates would have, which, as debate watchers know by now, means to keep returning to one point over and over, no matter the question. The Giuliani debater worked in electability at almost every opportunity; the Huckabee debater went with true conservative and governing experience; the McCain debater went with consistency and experience; the Paul representative brought everything back to protecting the Constitution, and the Romney rep, blithely ignoring the opening remarks about unity and all wanting the same thing, took shots at Giuliani at almost every opportunity. Mitt would have been proud.
The debaters weren't professionals--there was a lot of shuffling of notes, some flat voices, and a general wearing down by the end of the roughly 90 minute debate. If you were grading on style points, though, the unquestionable winners would have been Avery Knapp, Jr., the charismatic Ron Paul representative, and Claudio Simpkins, a speaker who would have given the smooth Huckabee himself a run for his money. Knapp spoke lucidly and confidently on every topic and also managed to break up the platform recitations with anecdotes and some humor--in an explanation of how ethanol subsidies were affecting prices of other items, he mentioned $5 beers, leading the moderator to say he wanted to know "where in Manhattan you can find $5 beers." Knapp shot back immediately, "Ron Paul headquarters." (Ron Paul supporters never miss a chance to work in some publicity.) In his opening statements, he said that Ron Paul wanted to protect the first amendment, the second amendment, and "the whole Constitution." Good applause line.
Simpkins, speaking for Huckabee, was the fastest on his feet and was able to incorporate the responses of other debaters into his answers as if he'd planned it that way. He never seemed glued to his notes, something that no one else accomplished. He also could pull off the line "I'm here because I heart Huckabee" and make it actually seem sincere and like it hasn't been said 10,000 times before (note: these two win additional points for speaking clearly and loudly; I was sitting towards the back and could hear every word they said. If this had been a national debate, they would have won the votes of every elocution teacher in the country).
Of course, style points weren't being awarded here. Straw polls are all about who shows up, and you could tell who was going to win this one just by walking into the room: there were people with Ron Paul signs, Ron Paul buttons, and Ron Paul Revolution t-shirts. There were a few people with "Rudy" stickers, but no other signs of support.
In order to vote in the straw poll, though, a person had to be a member of the Young Republicans, and this was the only thing that threw some doubt on the outcome; it was a safe bet that everyone there who was for Giuliani was a member, but it was also just as likely that a percentage of the Ron Paul supporters were walking in the doors of that building for the first time. They would have to decide whether they wanted to shell out the membership fee in order to push the vote their way.
But apparently, enough did: Paul won with 26 votes and Giuliani was second with 21. The other thirteen votes were scattered amongst the other candidates, none of them in double digits.
The mock debate was just for fun though (and we are stretching the meaning of fun here). It doesn't really have much meaning. No one, it seemed, was undecided, ready to have his or her mind changed. Only about one-third of the people were left in the audience at the debate's end. Others had left early, dropping off their votes without needing to hear anymore.
If you gave most of the campaigns truth serum and made them tell you what they really think, they'd say that Giuliani has New York locked up, and that's part of the reason why they won't even bother campaigning here. But on a chilly November night in Manhattan, Ron Paul, who trails Giuliani by more than thirty points in national polls, was the winner by virtue of, if nothing else, people showing up for him. It seems improbable to even think, but an observer would have to wonder--what happens if they keep showing up? Everywhere?