You do have to admire the near perfection of Mitt Romney as a candidate. It's no easy thing to find someone with such poise, movie-star looks, high intelligence, family stability and record of accomplishment. He is accused of being too smooth by those of us less gifted by nature.
And yet he did not win the Republican debate the other night. There were several reasons. In the first place, he picked a fight with John McCain and received in response a lacerating put-down. "I have not changed my position on even-numbered years or changed because of the different offices that I may be running for." Second, Romney's riff about Washington, D.C., being "broken" may have sounded new when Jimmy Carter used it in 1976, and it may have been plausible coming from Ronald Reagan, but in 2007 it is stale and almost meaningless.
What is broken? Our unfulfillable commitment to the baby boomers? Our immigration policy? Our too-small military? How would he reform those things? Without specifics, he bears a resemblance to Ross Perot promising to get under the hood and fix things. The problems we face do not cry out for a man on a white horse, but for someone who can persuade the nation about what is required to face our problems.
John McCain spent much of the evening reminding audiences of why they were lukewarm about him in the first place. Mr. Campaign Finance Reform demanded to know whether there was too little money sloshing around political campaigns. A better question would have been whether McCain/Feingold has reduced the influence of money in politics at all. So-called 527 groups have popped up like dandelions, fed by the funds that can no longer be contributed to political parties.
McCain also invoked bi-partisanship and "reaching across the aisle" several times. While this may play well in a general election, it's unlikely to quicken the pulse of Republican primary voters.
Rudy Giuliani completely missed the point of the question about abortion. Asked whether he saw a parallel between the anti-slavery and anti-abortion movements, he seemed mystified and responded, "Well, there [are] no circumstances under which I could possibly imagine anyone choosing slavery or supporting slavery." But the point was that just as no one would choose to be a slave, no unborn child would choose to be aborted.
Giuliani skillfully pivoted to ask whether we want Hillary Clinton making decisions about judges, which is his best strategy. And, of course, he got his "I'm paying for this microphone, Mr. Breen" moment when Representative Ron Paul offered an America-blaming explanation for 9/11. Any one of the candidates could have seized the moment, but it was Giuliani who did so and these spontaneous demonstrations of leadership are a lot of what people are seeking when they watch debates.
The discussion of torture was aside from Mr. Paul's historical analysis the least edifying part of the debate. None of the candidates seemed to grapple with just how difficult a question this is. John McCain clearly finds torture morally reprehensible (in part because he has suffered it). But his argument that it doesn't work rings false. He argued that those under torture will say anything to make it stop but surely that includes the truth? Those who believe we should not descend to using torture have a valid case on moral grounds, but they should be honest enough to admit that theirs is a moral and emphatically not a pragmatic argument.
On the other hand, both Romney and Giuliani seemed to want to have it both ways. Giuliani claimed that he would instruct interrogators, in the case of a ticking time bomb, to use "every method they could think of, not torture," to get information from a captured suspected terrorist. He then repeated the phrase "every method they could think of." Romney performed a little pirouette about preventing attacks and then declared himself foursquare in favor of "enhanced interrogation techniques not torture but enhanced interrogation techniques."
Rep. Tom Tancredo jumped in to declare, "You say that that nuclear devices have gone off in the United States, more are planned, and we're wondering about whether waterboarding would be a a bad thing to do? I'm looking for 'Jack Bauer' at that time, let me tell you." Brit Hume never said the attacks were nuclear. And Mr. Tancredo's answer offers insight into why we refer to second-tier candidates.