I managed to catch the CNN/YouTube debate tonight, and it certainly was different from most others. The problem was that the questions that weren’t planted tended to be questions based more on Republican stereotypes rather than on substantive issues. Yes, it’s somewhat interesting to know whether a candidate believes in the Bible or not—but is it the sort of question that should come up at a national debate?
I think this debate was “won” by Mike Huckabee and John McCain. Huckabee came off as the candidate I’d most like to have a beer with some time, and John McCain came off as the elder statesman. McCain put Ron Paul in his place (which is always a good thing for a Republican to do), and he spoke with great moral authority on torture against Romney’s non-answer. Huckabee’s answer that Jesus was too smart to run for public office was a great line. Huckabee came off as very natural and very personable. McCain came off as a man of integrity and honor.
Mitt Romney was also confident and poised. He confidently failed to give a clear answer with great poise. Both he and Giuliani hurt themselves by fighting over abortion—neither one of them are strong on that issue, and both hurt themselves there. Romney’s a very poised candidate, and he has an impressive business background. His honesty on the abortion issue was questioning. It’s nice to have a candidate willing to come out and admit his mistakes.
There were some decent questions that wouldn’t normally be asked in a Presidential debate. As a space exploration fan, I liked the question about the candidate’s vision for space exploration. NASA consumes a very small amount of the federal budget, and the candidates missed the opportunity to talk about private space exploration. Huckabee’s answer wasn’t bad, but it could have been better.
Fred Thompson was very poised and gave very responsive answers. He didn’t knock it out of the park, but he showed the best mastery of the issues. The problem is that he needs to do better—it’s a crowded field and he needs to stand out more. He’s got the substance, but he needs more flash. He has some great ads out that would have done much better than the attack ad he used.
First of all, I think Rudy hurt himself with his exchange with Romney. He’s the front-runner (at least nationally), so he doesn’t need to go on the offensive. Hitting Romney below the belt won’t help him, and made him look like a bully. Overall, his answers weren’t a strong as they could be. Rudy needs to get a boost, and this wasn’t it. While he’s still ahead nationally, he’s vulnerable.
The same applies to Fred Thompson’s attack ad. While all the others talked about themselves, Thompson’s offensive seemed out of place. Not only that, but Romney came back with a very human answer that helped him. Huckabee also had a good response. The other campaigns are calling the video an act of “desperation”—and while I don’t think that’s the case, it wasn’t the right call. I’m in Fred’s corner, but even I don’t think that running an attack ad at that point helped him at all.
Ron Paul is a nut. When given a question that basically asked him whether he believes in a bizarre conspiracy theory, he basically said “yes.” I’ll give him some credit for eschewing an independent run, but he’s still the sort of paleoconservative on national defense issues that we don’t need now.
Rudy also hurt himself with his Second Amendment answer. This was not the right crowd to split hairs on regulating guns. This was not a good night for Rudy, and it may hurt him.
This was a solid and substantive debate (at least on the part of the candidates, if not CNN), and it could end up changing the dynamics of the race. Rudy and Romney, the two frontrunners, engaged in a fight that ended up making them both look bad. Mike Huckabee demonstrated once again why he’s gaining the most traction—he was confident and had a decent command of the issues. Fred Thompson did nothing to take him out of the race. John McCain’s campaign was on life support only a few months ago, but he’s not out of the race by any chance, and many may be willing to take a new look at him after tonight.
The biggest loser: CNN. Having a Clinton campaign advisor not only be allowed to ask a question, but then to follow up live demonstrated incredibly poor judgment. At the very least CNN could have Googled the people they were having speak. Either they were trying to bias the debate or they were simply asleep at the wheel—either way it reflects badly on them.
This race is still entirely up in the air, and even with weeks left until the Iowa Caucuses the rankings could change dramatically. Fortunately, the Republican Party has a solid group of candidates to pick from. The problem is that eventually the field must be narrowed to one—and who that may be is anyone’s guess.