Well, I suffered through the first Republican presidential debate last Thursday night, and thought it was revealing if not dispositive. The staging of the event at the Reagan Library made the predictable pandering to the Gipper’s heritage seem more natural than it actually should have been, nearly twenty years after the man left office. And though I have never been a Chris Matthews fan, I think he did a pretty good job of cutting off the bloviating, and of following up on answers that begged follow-up questions.The most obvious thing about this debate is that with the exception of libertarian Ron Paul, none of the candidates could bring themselves to dissent from the Bush administration’s current policies in Iraq. If Chuck Hagel decides to enter the field, he will be able to fill an important vaccum on that issue.This being a debate among Republicans and all, I recommend the immediate commentary at National Review’s The Corner. Their reaction, which most observers have since more or less echoed, is that there was one big loser: Rudy Giuliani. He went into the debate the front-runner in the polls, and somehow managed to terribly flub the questions about his most vulnerable point among Republican conservatives, his position on abortion. For cultural conservatives, the defining moment of the debate was when candidates were asked what they’d think if Roe v. Wade was reversed. One after another, the candidates expressed variations on the theme of “O Happy Day,” until Rudy got his turn, and said “It’d be okay.” He then said it would be okay if Roe were not overturned, conveying an indifference to the whole topic that is guaranteed to offend people on both sides of the abortion divide.Rudy did an even more complicated and ineffective shuffle in answering a question on public funding of abortions. The fact that he joined John McCain in supporting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research may have pleased Nancy Reagan, the debate’s host, but further estranged him from anti-abortion voters.Equally damaging to Rudy, given his effort to make his anti-terrorism bona fides the central point of his campaign, was his answer, both inscrutable and wrong, to the predictable question about the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslisms.Ratings of the performance of the other members of the Big Three, McCain and Romney, seem to depend on preconceptions. I thought McCain looked younger and more energetic than in recent media appearances, and got some style points for quick and honest-sounding reactions on issues ranging from the idea of Tom Tancredo as immigration czar to his belief–modified slightly in a follow-up–in evolution. I also thought Romney looked and acted too slick and slippery, but Romney fans thought he did well.In terms of Everybody Else, Ron Paul won the Dennis Kucinich award for consistently and sometimes eloquently representing views that disqualified him from the nomination race. Duncan Hunter surprised viewers by expressing concerns about global warming; Jim Gilmore tried to trim on abortion; and Tommy Thompson probably blew his first mass media appearance by looking unbelievably saturnine, and talking too much about his record on the 1990s big issue, welfare reform.Two aspirants for the True Conservative Alternative to the Big Three, Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, got very mixed reviews. Brownback missed a variety of opportunities to distinguish himself from the pack. Huckabee answered a lot of questions flunking Debate Prep 101, by facing the moderator rather than the camera. But he did, out of the blue, offer what was perhaps the entire debate’s most interesting answer:
MR. VANDEHEI: Governor Huckabee, this question comes from a reader in New York. In light of the scandals plaguing the current administration and its allies, involving corruption and cronyism, which mistakes have you learned not to repeat?MR. HUCKABEE: The most important thing a president needs to do is to make it clear that we’re not going to continue to see jobs shipped overseas, jobs that are lost by American workers, many in their 50s who for 20 and 30 years have worked to make a company rich, and then watch as a CEO takes a hundred-million-dollar bonus to jettison those American jobs somewhere else. And the worker not only loses his job, but he loses his pension.
That’s criminal. It’s wrong. And if Republicans don’t stop it, we don’t deserve to win in 2008.
That was clearly a planned answer, and indicates that Huckabee is willing to become a conservative populist candidate. He ain’t got no money, and ain’t got much buzz, but so long as the Republican field is as moribund as it now appears to be, nobody should count him out.