It took all my self-discipline to remain awake for the Republican Question and Answer session held at the Reagan Library in California last week. I had hoped that MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews would ask tough questions of the Republican candidates and keep me awake. Alas, self-discipline kept me awake. Was there a clear winner? If so it had to be former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. He was clear. He was on message. He did not appear nervous. He did look Presidential.
It was the opposite of the Democratic debate in South Carolina one week ago. There the candidates during their initial statements appeared strong. It was during their questions and answers that they looked nervous. During the GOP session most of the candidates except Romney looked scared and nervous during the initial statements but in their questions and answers were poised and Presidential.
The "nation's mayor," Rudolph (Rudy) Giuliani, did himself some good in what he actually said. The problem was every time he spoke he looked so nervous, and one time even frightened, that it distracted from every word he spoke. He had the most to lose during this session and perhaps he did. On the other hand, Senator John S. McCain, III did not look nervous for most of what he said. It is what he said which might cause him problems. He is so tied to the war in Iraq that it has to go well for him to do well. Senator Sam Brownback, with his often stated clear message on life, emerged as the clear winner of the pro-life candidates. Almost all of the candidates appeared to be pro-life. The problem for former Governor James S. Gilmore, III, of Virginia, who looked Presidential, is he came across as the one clear pro-abortion candidate. True, he did modify what he said by articulating pro-life positions he had taken while Governor of Virginia. Still, I think it detracted somewhat from his position that he is the most consistent conservative of the bunch. (For full disclosure, Governor Gilmore is a member of the Free Congress Board of Directors.)
Congressman Duncan Hunter had the one definitive message directed at the middle class. He attacked our United States trade policy, charging that it was not only costing us jobs but was a problem for national security. Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas at first appeared weak but later came on strong. He provided one of the few laughs of the evening when he said of all of the candidates he knew Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton the best and could assure the audience that, whatever the question, Hillary was wrong.
Former Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin (a friend of mine for decades) did himself some good with what he said and he answered every question correctly, but at the end he looked distressed. If there were a counterpart to Democratic former Senator Mike Gravel, of Alaska, who reminded his party why it was wrong much of the time, it was Congressman Ron Paul, of Texas. He no doubt scored some points with libertarians. He also was consistent throughout the evening. If you are clearly against immigration and that is your priority, Congressman Tom Tancredo, of Colorado, is your man. For those who take that position he clearly scored some points. He probably didn't do as well on other questions.
This is the first of many, many of these so-called debates which will be held over the months coming up to the early part of 2008 in Iowa, when true electioneering will begin. I am not sure what good they do. I suppose it can be argued that these sessions introduce the candidates to the American people. That might be true if lots of people watched these sessions. I doubt more than reporters, commentators and political junkies tuned in. Oh, well, it gives a few of us something to do.
For whatever it may be worth, let us review the accomplishments of each candidate in this non-debate. Governor Romney, I believe, came across as truly Presidential. Will it do him any good? I wonder. He raised and spent millions in the early part of this year and it appears to have done him no good. His problem appears to be that voters do not believe him when he says he only has changed his positions on issues because he has become informed and not because he is running for national office. Mayor Rudy clearly now fits in with national Republican views. The problem for him will be that he seemed to be more nervous than most. If those clips are played over and over again he may drop further down than he has in recent polls. Senator McCain does appear Presidential and probably is convincing when he said he is the most prepared candidate in this election. The problem for McCain, pure and simple, is the war. If things go well by Christmas and remain well into February of 2008 perhaps he will be seen to be right. At that point he may leap-frog over the other candidates. But if things go poorly McCain will go down with the war. What would be tragic for McCain if the surge proved to be successful in March 2008 is that the major states would have voted.
Senator Brownback may have emerged as the genuine pro-life candidate. The question is will it do him any good? Yes, a portion of the delegates to the convention in Minneapolis will be pro-life. But will a majority vote that way? I doubt it. Brownback will have to shine forth on many other issues as well. He does have the advantage of a re-elected Senator. But thus far he lacks dollars. Governor Huckabee had hoped to emerge as the true conservative in this election. The problem for him is he is running with many other true conservatives. He did well in the Q and A. The question is, did he do well enough to burst on the national scene as the best of the lot. I rather doubt it. Governor Thompson needed to emerge as someone other than a regional candidate. Clearly he did himself some good. The question is did he do himself enough good? Most likely not. Congressman Hunter is the anti-free trade candidate in a party which is pro-free trade. For that segment of the delegates who are concerned about that issue he did well. The problem for Hunter, in addition to being a Member of the House of Representatives, is that he is running upstream.
Governor Gilmore did well among potential delegates who are first concerned about conservatism in general but who contend that the party should not be the pro-life party. Conservative yes, but not pro-life period. There are lots of those folks. Can Gilmore raise sufficient money to reach them? Time will tell. Unless something happens which makes the nation suddenly focused on immigration concerns and unless those concerns boil over until early 2008, Congressman Tancredo will either quit the national race and run for re-election, or he will find himself to be a symbolic candidate who goes down in flames for a cause in which he believes deeply. Same for Congressman Paul. He did himself perhaps the best but among a small segment of Republicans. Again, unless he wants to become a symbolic candidate at some point he will likely quit the national race and run for re-election. I rather hope he hangs in there for a time just to lecture the other candidates.
This was a session during which almost everyone did himself some good. The question is how much good. The answer is: probably not enough.