Last night was a very good night for Mitt Romney at the Republican debate in Boca Raton. It was a solid showing for John McCain, a surprisingly good performance by Mike Huckabee, and a pretty rotten one by Rudy Giuliani.
Romney gave what was probably his best debate performance of the entire campaign, a showing that could bolster his standing in Florida, where he and McCain are vying for the lead as they head into the January 29 primary.
The former Massachusetts governor stood out because he was finally able to escape from topics that call attention to the opportunism that has defined his campaign efforts in previous states. Instead of trying to out-conservative his foes on abortion, immigration, and gay rights—hot-button social issues on which Romney sang a remarkably different tune prior to his re-christening as a Republican presidential candidate—he focused much of his airtime on economic topics, speaking with a confidence and authenticity that is notably absent when he ventures into cultural issues.
Just as important, he refrained from launching attacks on his opponents, which in past debates has resulted in sharp and damning counterpunches from his rivals, who are generally all too happy to point out that he has changed positions in the recent past. But tonight, Romney limited his criticism to a brief mention of McCain’s previous opposition to George W. Bush’s tax cut program.
“I’m glad he thinks they should be made permanent,” Romney said. “I think he should have voted that way originally. That’s just a personal feeling.”
That statement was diplomatic enough to keep McCain from returning fire. Otherwise, Romney spent most of the debate selling himself as a solutions-oriented business leader and change agent, one who can make Washington functional. It’s the theme his campaign seized on only when he lost the New Hampshire primary, but for Romney it’s far more natural than any theme he seized on before New Hampshire, when he was still selling himself as a God-fearing culture warrior.
Tonight he spoke about the cost of entitlement programs, global competitiveness, and Social Security reform, while managing to throw some obligatory red meat to the right on foreign policy. He praised the Iraq war and the surge, and disparaged “General Hillary Clinton.”
For the first time in the entire campaign, the same Romney who won an election in Massachusetts seemed to be running for President (at least until the closing minutes of the debate, when he brought up abortion and gay marriage).
Romney badly needs to defeat McCain in Florida to keep the Arizona Senator from entering February 5 as the clear national front-runner. Florida’s rules provide him with an assist: the independents who have aided McCain in New Hampshire and South Carolina can’t vote in Florida, which may account for how close the polls are right now. Romney made a compelling case for his own viability to any Florida Republican who may have been reluctantly migrating towards McCain out of a sense of inevitability.
McCain, for his part, did not do himself much harm. The language of economics and business is not as natural to him as it is to Romney, which was obvious in the first part of the debate, when economic topics dominated. But he held his own by playing up his long-standing crusade against government waste.
And when the subject moved to foreign policy, he asserted his own natural advantage over Romney, passionately embracing the war and the surge and giving Republicans a preview of how he might take on Hillary Clinton in the fall on those same subjects.
“If we do what Senator Clinton said…and that’s wave the white flag of surrender and set a date for withdrawal, then we will have expenses in American blood and treasure and al Qaeda will have won.”
McCain also used the war deftly when the subject of his own perceived disloyalty to the G.O.P.—on issues like immigration, tax cuts, and judges—was raised by one of the moderators. Instead of explaining areas where he has staked out more liberal positions than the G.O.P. base, he played up—very effectively—his early willingness to criticize the Bush administration and its Republican establishment backers over their execution of the Iraq war.
“I’ll put my country above my party every single time,” McCain said.