To understand the presidential debate on Tuesday night in South Carolina, think of a tennis tournament. There are quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals.
The GOP debate featured two quarter final matches. In the left court, battling for the moderate Republican nomination, were Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. In the right court, competing for the conservative Republican nomination, were the seven card-carrying conservatives Romney, Huckabee, Brownback, Gilmore, Hunter, Tancredo and Thompson as well as the two candidates who weren't even there, Fred Thompson and Newt Gingrich.
The winner of the Giuliani-McCain match and the nine-way conservative quarter finals will meet in the semi-finals on February 5, 2008, in America's first ever national primary.
Rudy won against McCain in straight sets by his brilliant focus on terrorism. When he looked around the stage and said, "I really think that I have more experience with security issues than anyone on this platform," the debate was effectively over. McCain's obtuse answer about what he called torture, and what the others called aggressive interrogation, helped seal his fate that night. Does McCain really believe that al Qaeda will exercise restraint if we don't waterboard terror suspects?
But the most interesting contest on Tuesday night was among the seven pygmies trying to get into the first tier and to pre-empt Thompson and Gingrich from running.
Entering the debate, the front-r unner in this match was Mitt Romney. This should have been Romney's time to make a move. He had $12 million in the bank as of March 31. He got the cover of Time Magazine, a segment on "60 Minutes," and he's already buying ads on the FOX News Channel. Some national polls show him finally breaking into double digits for the first time.
But FOX News' Wendell Golar pinned Romney's ears back with his aggressive questioning, challenging him on his history of flip-flop-flips over abortion. Like many Mormons, Romney was pro-choice as he entered politics, but, when facing a race for Senator against Ted Kennedy, and then a contest for governor of Massachusetts, he trimmed his sails and tacked to the left, coming out for choice. "I will protect a woman's right to choose," he opined. Romney says that his change was driven by the tragedy of a relative who died following an illegal abortion, but many suspect him, of an "even numbered year conversion," as McCain put it.
Then, when he decided to run for the Republican nomination for president, he had another conversion ... this time back to pro-life. Again, this switch was not caused by any political consideration, but by his work on stem cell research which convinced him that we are too ready to dispose of embryos and human life.
Nobody with half a brain will buy his story that these flips and flops were not politically motivated.
Now, with Romney impaired in his mission to become "The Great Right Hope" taking on the winner of Giuliani-McCain, who will fill the void on the right? If not Romney, do we need to wait for Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich? But as Fred dithers and Newt delays, the vacuum becomes more galling. Enter Arkansas' Mike Huckabee with a stellar debate performance.
When Huckabee compared Democratic spending to John Edwards at a hair salon, he cracked everyone up. When he spoke of the commitment to human life that animates us when hikers are lost on Mt. Hood, or miners are stuck in a coal mine, or a child is lost in the woods, and compared it with our lack of concern for the fetus in the womb, he spoke to the heart of the conservative viewers.
But, beyond his substance, Huckabee (disclosure: a former client) showed an ability to turn a phrase that ranks with Reagan and Clinton. He was able to communicate so well that he stood out in the pack.
Huckabee has a long way to rise, and Romney has a long way to fall, before the Arkansan could become "The Great Right Hope" but he is doing very well in the early going of the quarter final.
Was anybody watching? You bet. Two million viewers tuned in. And if that doesn't sound like a lot, consider that the total turnout in the Republican primaries will probably not top seven million!