At Debate, Rudy Stops His Skid, Romney Wilts

What goes around comes around.

Two weeks ago, in the first Republican presidential debate, Mitt Romney had a very good night and Rudy Giuliani had a pretty bad one, and the fallout was immediate and dramatic: Mr. Romney suddenly seemed a plausible nominee, and Mr. Giuliani’s days as the front-runner seemed numbered.

And then tonight happened.

Mr. Giuliani used his second debate performance to clean up the mess he created for himself in the first and to re-establish – by picking a fight with a hopeless third-tier candidate – the preeminence of his mythic 9/11 credentials. By contrast, Mr. Romney, who used the first debate to offer smooth promises to the party’s conservative wing on just about everything that’s ever been on its wish list, was actually confronted by moderators, repeatedly, with the gaping inconsistencies between his present-day rhetoric and that upon which he built his Massachusetts political career.

The effects may prove fleeting – this was, after all, just one of what may end up being dozens of debates – but Mr. Giuliani had an excellent night in Columbia, and just when he needed it most.

Entering the debate, which was broadcast on the right-leaning Fox News Channel and moderated exclusively by Fox talent, Mr. Giuliani’s campaign was in something approaching a freefall, the consequence of his evasiveness in the first debate on the topic of abortion. After that debacle, Mr. Giuliani’s campaign opted to go for broke on the issue, with the former mayor using several public appearances to level with his fellow Republicans about his support for abortion rights. The risk was obvious: No candidate with that position has won a single Republican presidential primary or caucus since 1980.

Mr. Giuliani’s newfound forthrightness figured to dominate the proceedings, held in the heart of South Carolina, a pivotal early GOP primary state dominated by Christian conservatives and a contest that Mr. Giuliani’s campaign has hinted it might de-emphasize in its national strategy. But in this debate, unlike the first, Mr. Giuliani was prepared, flashing the rhetorical agility that once helped him as a federal prosecutor.

Confronted by Fox’s Chris Wallace with a laundry list of his apostasies – support for abortion and gay rights, gun control and Mario Cuomo – Mr. Giuliani recognized the futility of arguing each individual point and instead warned the conservative crowd not to forget their real enemy: his fellow New Yorker and almost-Senate opponent from 2000, whose name he didn’t have to mention.

“But there’s something really big at stake,” Mr. Giuliani said as he turned away from the social issues. “We’re looking at a race here in which the leading Democratic candidate believes that an unfettered free market is bad… That’s a stark difference – a very big difference if we go in that direction, removing private choice… those are the things that she should be debating, and Republicans should be uniting to make sure that what the liberal media is talking about – that we’re going to lose – is not going to happen.”

For Republicans, the promise of Mr. Giuliani’s campaign is victory in November. And for Mr. Giuliani, the calculation is that the threat of a Clinton reinstallation will prompt among Republicans the kind of pragmatic unity that Democrats showed in their 2004 primaries, when they rallied behind John Kerry, believing (however mistakenly) that the decorated Vietnam veteran would offer swing voters the most compelling alternative to a war-time President.

And unlike past pro-choice Republican candidates – Pete Wilson and Arlen Specter, for instance – Mr. Giuliani does not want social conservatives to view him with hostility. He took pains tonight to make clear that his candidacy is not a bid to liberate what remains of the party’s center from its right-wing base. To that end, he tossed ample red meat to the base on just about every topic besides abortion – notice, for instance, how he snuck “liberal media” into the response above. And when he was further interrogated on abortion, he again stressed common ground, claiming credit for a reduction in abortions and an increase in adoptions in New York City in the 1990s. (Not that this had much to do with his mayoral policies – the statistics were part of a larger national trend that Bill Clinton has happily claimed credit for as well).

But while he fielded the social issues hot potatoes with savvy, Mr. Giuliani won the debate with a brilliant bit of theater, seizing an opening that was there for any candidate to take. It came when Congressman Ron Paul, the 1988 Libertarian nominee for President, delivered a damning indictment of the very core of the White House’s rationale for its “war on terror” – the notion that the United States was attacked on 9/11 out of shear jealousy and irrational hatred and that those fighting our troops in Iraq will just as willingly cross the Atlantic (or Pacific) to wage battle on American soil should our military withdraw.

“If we think we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, we do it at our own risk,” Dr. Paul declared.

His may have been compelling – but not to the audience that mattered for the GOP candidates. What little support President Bush’s troop increase enjoys comes almost exclusively from the hardened base of the Republican Party – voters who hold sway in choosing the ’08 nominee and who probably differ with Mr. Giuliani on abortion. In other words, the perfect set-up for Rudy.

And the former mayor didn’t disappoint, jumping in as soon as Dr. Paul had finished talking to request an opportunity for a rebuttal, which the moderators, eager for some sparks, happily granted him.

Invoking his 9/11 credentials, Mr. Giuliani, his voice solemn, said of Mr. Paul’s comments, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before – and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for 9/11.”

The crowd, filled with
who-knows-how-many anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-gun control conservatives, exploded in applause.

Dr. Paul was then granted a response, which he again used to lay out a case for why the Iraq war has harmed our national security interests. It was lost on the audience.

When he finished, Mr. Giuliani, like a prosecutor who has his witness where he wants him, went for an encore – but his rivals on stage, kicking themselves for not jumping in first, began crying out for equal time to call Dr. Paul names.

Most vocal among them, fittingly, was Mr. Romney, who could be heard off camera saying, “Wait! Wait!” as Mr. Giuliani tried to begin a second rebuttal.

And so it went for most of the night for the one-term Massachusetts Governor. The difference may well have been sound moderating. Democrats often complain of the favoritism the Fox News Channel shows to Republicans. And yet it was MSNBC’s moderator, Chris Matthews, who gave Mr. Romney a free pass in the first debate as the candidate provided answer after answer in complete harmony with the GOP base.

But it was the Fox moderators, particularly Mr. Wallace, who actually held Mr. Romney’s feet to the fire, adding valuable context to his made-for-the-base rhetoric on abortion, gay rights, gun control and immigration. Mr. Wallace, for instance, confronted Mr. Romney with his bold promise as a Massachusetts Senate candidate to do more to advance gay rights than his opponent – who was Ted Kennedy. And with his very recent (as in, late 2005) sympathetic statements about John McCain’s work on immigration reform – a subject on which Mr. Romney now savages Mr. McCain in order to curry favor with the right. And Mr. Romney was at last quizzed about his new anti-abortion position and how it contrasts with the wrenching personal account of a family member’s death from a back-alley abortion that he repeatedly provided to Massachusetts voters to prove his pro-choice bona fides.

In one of the last questions of the night, Mr. Wallace simply asked Mr. Romney if he’s ever changed his position in a way that doesn’t help him with the conservative base. Feebly, Mr. Romney cited his support for President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative, contending that this places him at odds with the GOP base because “I know there are a lot of people in my party that don’t like it, but I like testing.”

Worse for Mr. Romney, he may have stirred up Mr. McCain, who was overshadowed by Mr. Giuliani’s command performance but who had a decent night himself. After Mr. Romney very cutely referred to Mr. McCain’s immigration plan as “McCain-Kennedy” three times and then strained to tie it to “McCain-Feingold” the Arizona senator moved to put his opponent in his place.

“I haven’t changed my positions in even-numbered years, and I haven’t changed my positions because of different offices I’m running for,” he said, to some surprising applause from the audience.

Mr. Romney’s delivery was just as smooth in this debate as it was in the first debate. But this time, the moderators actually paid attention to his words. And that made it a much rougher night for him – and an even clearer win for the pro-choice, pro-gay rights New Yorker.

Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.