Mitt Romney used the first Republican presidential debate to validate his inclusion in the top tier and Rudy Giuliani used the second one to save his campaign from falling out of it.
In tonight’s third debate, though, nothing transpired that threatens to alter the basic GOP pecking order. Messrs. Giuliani and Romney, along with Senator John McCain (conveniently bunched together on the crowded stage by CNN) sounded familiar themes and largely shied away from the kind of confrontational theatrics that seeped into the Democratic debate held two nights earlier.
The trio entered the hall in Manchester, New Hampshire as co-front-runners campaigning under a cloud – the looming candidacy of Fred Thompson – and that’s how they left it.
For curious onlookers, though, there was nonetheless clear value in the two-hour session: In angling for the hearts of a depressed Republican base, the front-runners demonstrated why the early line on the ’08 election so strongly favors the Democrats. Their individual general election liabilities – along with the liabilities of the Republican brand that will threaten any GOP nominee – were on vivid display tonight.
Take Mr. McCain, whose nomination prospects are threatened by his black-sheep status on several issues that are litmus tests for his party’s base, most notably his pending legislation to create a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented workers, a bill the right has reduced to “amnesty for illegal aliens.” Mr. McCain defended himself ably on the topic tonight – linking his proposal to national security and challenging his critics to produce specific plans of their own, rather than quibbling with this and that in what is a 400-page bill – and should he secure the nomination, his advocacy will be a plus for him in the general election, with a clear majority of the electorate favoring his approach and surely liking the maverick streak he has flashed in pursuing it.
But in the general election, Mr. McCain’s immigration credentials will almost undoubtedly take a back seat to the question of Iraq. And as a question early in the evening painfully demonstrated tonight, his credibility with the broad electorate on that issue – damaged severely this winter when he strolled through an outdoor market in Baghdad and pronounced it safe, hoping no one would take note of the papal-level security he was afforded – could be exhausted within a few months.
Specifically, Mr. McCain was asked what will happen if, in September, General David Petraeus reports that the troop surge Mr. McCain has vociferously championed has failed to secure Baghdad. For months, Mr. McCain has handled this query question with ease, pleading on the stump and in interviews that the surge – and General Petraeus himself, newly installed as the top general in Iraq – be given a chance to succeed. But the question is fast shedding its hypothetical overtones: American deaths have risen sharply in the past two months, and reports now indicate that only a fraction of Baghdad has been secured and that the kind of stability for which the surge was designed is months off, at best. In other words, Mr. McCain may not be able to buy much more time.
Indeed, after Mr. McCain tried to side-step the question tonight with his standard reply, he was met with a forceful follow-up from moderator Wolf Blizter, after which Mr. McCain rattled off several doomsday scenarios tied to the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
“All of the options I could put before you – none of them are good,” he said. The same might be said of how Mr. McCain could face a general election audience if the discouraging signs about the surge are confirmed in September. If Iraq had never happened, Mr. McCain would have shown tonight why he’d be an unstoppable fall candidate for his party. But that’s probably like saying the Boston Celtics would be a good basketball team if only Larry Bird could still play.
Then there is Mr. Romney, who did manage to recover his rhetorical alacrity tonight after a shaky outing in the last debate.
Wisely, he resisted a trap when he was given an opening to engage Mr. McCain directly on the immigration question, as he did the last time out. No doubt Mr. McCain – who lashed out at Romney on this topic, though not by name, earlier this week – was prepared to fire back with an attack on Mr. Romney’s own obscene flip-flopping on the question (He called Mr. McCain’s immigration work “reasonable” as recently as late 2005). But Mr. Romney preempted such a scene by refusing to take the bait, instead referring to Mr. McCain as “my friend” and announcing that “I’m not going to make it personal.”
And yet Mr. Romney – even though his was easily the most polished and confident presentation – amazingly gave his critics, whether within the GOP or among his potential Democratic foes, even more ammunition with which to attack him as a rudderless and opportunistic flip-flopper, a charge that has dogged him since he entered the race. Tonight, the topics were the military’s “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy and the idea of declaring English the official language of the United States.
On “Don’t ask, Don’t tell,” Mr. Romney was reminded by Mr. Blitzer that in his 1994 campaign for the U.S. Senate he had opposed the policy (which was enacted in 1993) and argued that gays should have the right to serve openly in the armed services. Asked if he still held that position, Mr. Romney – as he frequently does when confronted with pronouncements and promises he made to curry favor with the liberal electorate of Massachusetts – sought to revise history, attempting to align his ’94 opposition with that of other conservatives at the time. Ignoring his earlier support for gays serving openly, he simply declared that he had thought the policy impractical at the time (something with which conservative critics certainly agreed) and that he “turned out to be wrong” and now supports it.
Far more damning, though, was a question from an audience member who asked Mr. Romney to square his fervent support for English as the official language with his decision to air ads in Spanish and to create a Spanish version of his campaign web page. This, coupled with previous revelations that he had once paid a company that employed undocumented Guatemalans for landscaping work at his Belmont, Massachusetts home, creates trouble for Mr. Romney on two fronts, complicating his vituperations against Mr. McCain’s immigration bill and, more important, adding to a laundry list of inconsistencies that would make for a devastating series of anti-Romney ads for any Democratic candidate in 2008.
Mr. Romney had no good answer.
That leaves Mr. Giuliani, who can at least breathe a sigh of relief that, but for one moment when Senator Sam Brownback declared that he would be unable to win the GOP nomination because of his abortion views, his social liberalism didn’t feature prominently in the proceedings.
Mr. Giuliani is clearly the strongest fall candidate for the GOP, since his 9/11 hero credentials – to whatever extent they’re actually deserved – make him palatable to voters in states his party hasn’t contested at the presidential level for decades.
But his posturing on foreign policy and domestic security, if it wasn’t already clear, is rooted in the same kind of knee-jerk emotionalism that George W. Bush rode to re-election in 2004, in which all actions are justified as responses to 9/11.
For example, Mr. Giuliani was asked whether it is now fair to say that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. In response, he explicitly linked Iraq to “the overall terrorist war against the United States” and declared, “It’s unthinkable that you could leave Saddam Hussein in control of Iraq and try to fight the war on terror.”
This tactic worked for Mr. Bush in 2004, when pre-eection polls showed that more than half of all Americans believed – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had been connected to the attacks of Sept. 11. But that view is less prevalent now than it was two and a half years ago – though a considerable chunk of the electorate still holds it – and support for the Iraq war has dropped as well. Mr. Giuliani may still get mileage out of such rhetoric with general election audiences simply because of who he is and what he represents; but its potency in the fall of 2008 is not likely to be nearly as significant as it was in ’04.
But by far the biggest general obstacle all three of the GOP front-runners – and Mr. Thompson, too, when he formally enters the race – is Bush fatigue, which began setting in in the summer of ’05 and cost Republicans two governors races that year (the only two on the docket) and control of Congress (and numerous governorships and state legislatures) in ’06.
There is simply no sign of it letting up, and the candidates are plainly aware of it, something that was evident when several of the second-tier contenders were asked tonight what role Mr. Bush would play in their administrations. The same question was asked of the Democrats about Bill Clinton on Sunday night, producing a flurry of creative job offers from the would-be Presidents. Not so tonight.
Given the first response, Tommy Thompson, Mr. Bush’s former Health and Human Services Secretary, caustically joked that “I certainly wouldn’t send him to the United Nations.” And Congressman Tom Tancredo, locked out of the White House by Karl Rove in 2003, coldly declared that “I would have to tell George W. Bush the same thing Karl Rove told me.”
The moment illustrated how steep a climb any of the GOP front-runners face next year: Even if they overcome their own shortcomings, they’ll still be subject to Mr. Bush’s.