McCain and Huckabee Stand Their Ground

011108 debate McCain and Huckabee Stand Their GroundThere was a particular urgency in Thursday’s Republican presidential debate for two candidates: Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson.

Romney’s campaign hangs in the balance in next week’s Michigan primary, where anything short of a win will likely mark the end of the line for the former Massachusetts governor. And Thompson’s candidacy will expire unless he can come from way behind to win two Saturdays from now in South Carolina, where the candidates gathered tonight.

Each man faces a decidedly uphill climb, Thompson in particular, and nothing that transpired in tonight’s 90-minute forum, which was broadcast on the Fox News Channel, brought either man much closer to his goal.

The culprit was the surprisingly civil, almost sleepy tone of the proceedings, a marked departure from the heated Saturday and Sunday night debates that preceded the New Hampshire primary. That kind of mood almost always works against challengers, since it minimizes the likelihood that a dramatic or poignant moment—the kind that can quickly reshape mass opinion—will transpire.

Fox’s moderators tried, and mostly failed, to manufacture some confrontation, while Romney, who was on the giving and receiving end of numerous sharp jabs the last time out, seemed reluctant to engage his foes tonight—and they seemed just happy to leave him alone.

In fact, Thompson was the only candidate on stage to take repeated and direct swipes at any of his rivals, singling out Mike Huckabee, and for good reason. Huckabee is at or near the top of most South Carolina polls, so Thompson, who is trying to position himself as the “true” conservative (and southern) candidate in the race, must tear him down if he wants to climb up.

Thompson sparked the only intense exchange of the night early on, ticking off a lengthy list of Huckabee’s supposed crimes against conservatism.

“He would be a Christian leader, but he would also bring about liberal economic policies and a liberal foreign policy,” Thompson said.

Then, after noting Huckabee’s support for a federal ban on smoking, he slammed the former Arkansas governor with words that every southern conservative understands: “So much for states’ rights.” That prompted some of the loudest applause of the night.

However, Huckabee responded deftly, easing some of the tension with a joke about how being attacked is a sign of his success, and then, in his smooth and soothing preacher’s voice, taking the audience on a brief tour of his governorship in Arkansas, starting from the day he took over from a corrupt Democrat who went to jail. He pointed out that he cut taxes “for the first time in 160 years,” and framed his decision to raise others during his tenure as proof that he out his state’s interests over his political ambition.

“What I did was I governed,” he said, “and the people of my state must have liked what I did, because they kept re-electing me.”

On the whole, the exchange probably benefited Thompson more, simply because he was playing offense. But Huckabee defused the situation ably and had winning moments of his own throughout the night, especially when one of the moderators questioned a full-page newspaper ad that he and other religious leaders took out in 1998. It gave Huckabee a perfect opportunity to assert his faith to an appreciative audience.

Given that Huckabee is at or near the top of most South Carolina polls, while Thompson — who finished well behind Huckabee in Iowa and didn’t even contest New Hampshire — has slid into single digits, Thompson’s offensive tonight felt like a case of much too little, much too late.

Romney, meanwhile, has a target of his own: John McCain, who is now favored to defeat Romney in Michigan next week. The two mixed it up in their final two New Hampshire debate, when a year’s worth of tension between them seemed to spill over. But tonight Romney made only a half-hearted effort to go after McCain — even though he might have benefited had he baited McCain into some kind of angry outburst.

Without naming him, Romney did implicate McCain in his call for change in Washington, saying that “if you send the same people back to Washington just to sit in different chairs, nothing will happen.” But their was no aggressive push to throw McCain on defense, and when a moderator raised to subject of immigration — to the crowd’s fervent applause — Romney almost seemed to be going through the motions as he raised his by now familiar rhetorical differences with McCain on the subject.

McCain, for his part, resisted taking any shots at Romney, a continuation of the front-runner’s strategy he began employing after last Saturday’s debate, when he risked appearing too nasty after throwing repeated snide comments toward Romney. The toughest moment for McCain tonight came on the immigration question, and his usual defense of his position was greeted with complete silence from the audience.

But he also scored points with conservatives, particularly the no- insignificant chunk of them with military backgrounds in South Carolina, by repeatedly touting his long-standing support for the Iraq war and the troop surge, even using the topic to address a question about the public’s apparent hunger for “change.”

“I’ve helped bring about one of the most important changes of my lifetime,” McCain said, “and that is to reverse a losing strategy in Iraq, which would have entailed the loss of so much American treasure. And now we are succeeding.”

This is a key difference between this iteration of John McCain and the last one, when his signature issue was campaign finance reform, which drove a politically lethal wedge between him and the Republican base. Now it is Iraq and the troop surge he brings up the most, and to many conservatives in the G.O.P., that makes him seem loyal to the party.

Just like this debate didn’t bring Fred Thompson much closer to toppling Mike Huckabee, it’s doubtful Mitt Romney made up much ground on John McCain.