If he seemed uncomfortable, some might suggest, it’s because the rhetoric was such a departure from the kind of frank, unscripted candor that made Mr. McCain such a rock star in his last bid. More to the point it’s unclear his stridency will even help him much with the G.O.P. base, which continues to support — in somewhat modest numbers — the President’s Iraq policy. Those numbers may reflect a deep-seated belief in the cause, but they can probably be more attributed to the Republican base’s knee-jerk defense of their leader in the face of withering attacks from their political enemies. In that case, even they may shun Mr. McCain next year, calculating that his views would be a general election liability.
Eventually the old McCain did rear his head, especially when the topic turned to pork-barrel spending and his smiling promise to expose earmark-happy Congressmen and to make them “famous” as President. Mr. McCain seemed to redeem himself with his performance in the second half of the debate, but on the whole his presentation was not as consistent as Mr. Romney’s.
But a far bigger disappointment was Mr. Giuliani, whose campaign is rooted in his supposedly heroic and larger-than-life 9/11 heroism. He seemed almost hesitant last night, unwilling to grab command—as Mr. Romney did—when the questions weren’t to his liking.
This was particularly noticeable on the several abortion questions he received. First, Mr. Giuliani sheepishly announced that it would be “OK” if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Then he clarified by saying he simply believed states should make the choice. Then, under some intense questioning, he admitted to supporting public funding in New York and to believing that women should have the right to choose. It was a cringe-worthy performance, as the former mayor squirmed to avoid alienating the Iowa and South Carolina Christian conservatives who are enamored of him.
What he failed to do—and what one imagines Mr. Romney might have done if he’d been in a similar bind—was to aggressively shift the discussion to his strength: his unmatched potential to flip over blue states in the fall and preserve the White House for his party.
The debate was held in California, the jackpot state of the Electoral College and one Republicans haven’t seriously contested since 1988. Surely Mr. Giuliani could have artfully connected the discussion of divisive social issues to his ability to swing the Golden State to the GOP—just as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, another pro-choice Republican who sat in the audience, has done twice now.
Outside of the three main candidates, most of the others were essentially indistinguishable from one another—with the exception of Congressman Ron Paul and his pointed assertions that the Iraq War represents an abandonment of 20th Century Republican foreign policy consensus.
While Mr. Romney’s presentation was undeniably powerful, it still remains to be seen whether conservatives, at some point in the next 10 months, will stop and wonder whether it’s a little suspicious that Mr. Romney seems to always say exactly what they want to hear — just as he always said exactly what Massachusetts voters wanted to hear in his 1994 and 2002 campaigns there.
Still, tonight was about introductions, and Mr. Romney’s was the most effective.
Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.