John McCain bounced back in the first Republican presidential debate and breathed new life into his faltering candidacy.
His answers were strong: he faced the camera squarely, and scored big with his circa-2000 attacks on pork spending and special interests. He was both passionate and articulate. His sole bad moment came with his fumbling answer about why he opposed the Bush tax cuts. But for a candidate who seemed to have lost his way, McCain did very, very well.
That said, there was a major bias in the debate. MSNBC and Politico deliberately marginalized Giuliani and steered far too many of the important questions to anybody not named Rudy. In doing so, they paid homage to their Democratic Party masters by diminishing the candidate most likely to win in November.
The other two winners were Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.
Romney, who had the most face time of all of the candidates, showed himself to be the handsome, well-spoken candidate that he is. While his account of his flip-flops on abortion was not convincing, his homilies to family, God and country will sound good to Republican ears.
Huckabee (disclosure: a former client) was the most original and interesting of the candidates. His unique style came through when he defended his pro-life views by asking why, if we "move heaven and earth" to find hikers lost on Mt. Hood or in a coal mine, we don't defend human life in the womb. His explanation of how his faith leads him to embrace global stewardship in the face of climate change and to want to punish Enron-style executives who fleece their workers was both novel and intriguing.
Rudy Giuliani underperformed in the debate. He began very well by comparing himself to Ronald Reagan and noting that Iran backed down in "two seconds" when they looked into Reagan's eyes and released the hostages. But then he deteriorated into a mayor, not a president. He repeated too often his record in New York City and, incredibly, failed to even mention 9-11 — his signature moment — until his last answer of the 90 minute debate. While the format was biased against him, his own performance was not strong enough to counteract it.
But still, Rudy showed that he doesn't really have a domestic program. While he shone on terrorism, he was far from persuasive on social or economic issues. He needs a program or at least talking points on something other than New York City and terrorism.
An honorable mention goes to Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) who outdistanced his western state rival for the anti-immigration vote, Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.). Hunter was more attractive and handled the immigration issue better than Tancredo. He helped himself move to the front rank of the second tier of candidates.
Losers were former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson who was dull, unattractive, and basically uninteresting. His only accurate claim was his creation of the welfare reform system, a statement that saved him from a total wipeout. Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore was likewise boring and bland and did himself no good. But the most boring candidate, by far, was Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. He entered the debate vying with Huckabee for the Christian right imprimatur, but lost that contest hands down to his rival's originality and creativity.
The impact of the debate will probably be to tighten the Republican race. One can expect McCain and Romney to move up, for Giuliani's lead to shrink, and for Huckabee to move to the front rank of second level candidates.
Giuliani will probably still win the nomination, but he has to get his act down better. He's running for president... not for mayor.