Before last night's GOP presidential candidate debate in South Carolina, the various talking heads mused about which of the "second tier" candidates--if any--might achieve some sort of breakthrough, and close the gap with the "Big 3."
After watching the debate, I think the answer is clear. Two of the lesser names broke through the static last night, but for entirely different reasons. As a result, one is finished--even as a minor presidential hopeful--while the other has probably established himself as the "fourth" Republican presidential candidate, at least until Fred Thompson and/or Newt Gingrich get into the race.
The breakthrough "loser," of course, is Texas Congressman Ron Paul. At approximately 10:03 p.m., EDT, he had one of those disastrous debate moments that will forever define Dr. Paul, and his abortive campaign. Responding to a question from Wendell Goler of Fox News, the Congressman opined that the U.S. "invited" the 9-11 attacks through our decade-long bombing of Iraq, and extensive military presence in the Middle East.
In fairness, Paul's position is hardly new. As a Libertarian who runs as a Republican, Congressman Paul views foreign policy through the same prism as George Washington and Senator Robert Taft: non-interventionist to the extreme, and avoidance of "entangling alliances" at all costs. But it's not the message that Republican voters want to hear, especially in South Carolina. Former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani quickly seized the opportunity, describing Paul's comments as "an extraordinary attack...and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for the 9-11 attack." Guliani's interjection drew the biggest applause of the night, and forever consigned Mr. Paul to the ash heap of politicians who have commit fatal debate errors. Paul even compounded the problem by declining to withdraw his comments, as Guliani requested. Stick a fork in Dr. Paul; he's officially done.
The other minor candidates--Duncan Hunter, Tommy Thompson, Tom Tancredo, Jim Gilmore, Sam Brownback--didn't kill their hopes last night, but as a group, they did nothing to enhance their prospects. On issues other than immigration, Tancredo (at times) appears surprisingly inarticulate; Thompson's responses to almost every question were lame and pat. Answering a question related to Brit Hume's "terrorist attack scenario," the former Wisconsin governor invoked Ronald Reagan's maxim of "trust, but verify." Huh? His answer sounded suspiciously like some of the Democrats who talked about the need to "get the intel right," in response to a similar question during their recent debate. For Governor Thompson, the response was enough to convince most GOP voters that he's hardly prepared to be Commander-in-Chief. As for Gilmore, Brownback and Hunter, they simply disappeared during last night's forum, a sure indicator of what will happen to their campaigns in the coming months.
Among the second tier hopefuls, the only one who achieved anything close to a "positive" break through was Mike Huckabee. I agree with Michelle Malkin; the former Arkansas Governor acquitted himself well in the debate, handling most questions deftly and proving that he can think on his feet. When John McCain offered a tired joke about Congress spending like a bunch of drunken sailors, Huckabee responded with a much better line, saying that Congress is spending like John Edwards at a beauty shop. Big laughter and applause.
As for the Big 3, Mitt Romney's early attack on John McCain over campaign finance reform and immigration legislation was both welcome--and a sign of things to come. McCain-Feingold is a serious threat to free political speech, and it's about time someone called the Senator on it. Ditto for his immigration bill (co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy), which includes amnesty for some illegals. McCain countered by noting his consistency on the issues, in contrast to Romney's flip-flops.
That may be true, but the former Massachusetts governor can easily--perhaps too easily --explain the evolution of his ideas. Romney comes across as the most articulate and polished of the GOP candidates, while Rudy Guliani wins the award for the most re-energized performance. McCain is somewhere in between; at times, he appears commanding and sure, at other times, he seems tired and almost robotic--a politician reciting his talking points for the 300th time. There were no major knockdowns or gaffes among the three major candidates last night, but none of them acheived any sort of breakout, either. Not that you'd really expect one at this stage in the campaign, but at some point, Romney, McCain and Guliani must turn their sights on each other, and eliminate their major rivals. In that respect, Romney's strike was the first salvo in the real war for the GOP presidential nomination.
Despite the large number of candidates--and limited time--the debate format conceived by Fox News and the South Carolina GOP worked rather well. Questions from moderator Brit Hume and correspondents Chris Wallace and Wendell Goler were generally sharp, although Mr. Wallace and Mr. Goler earned some demerits for questions on Republican "diversity" and global warming that seemed straight out of a DNC press release.
On the morning after in the Palmetto State, the message is clear; thanks for playing Congressman Paul, and on your way out, take Tom Tancredo, Tommy Thompson, Jim Gilmore, Sam Brownback and Duncan Hunter with you. "Vanity" candidates are a fixture in presidential politics, but even at this stage, the GOP's favorite libertarian and the "Little 5" are adding nothing to the debate. It's time for them to make an early exit, stage right.
From the "What Was Fox Thinking Department:" The idea of a "text message" poll to determine who won the debate is one of the dumbest ideas in recent history. Sure enough, Ron Paul finished second in the voting, which proves that (a) Libertarians are the best text-messagers (as Michelle Malkin suggests), or that (b) the Texas Congressman had lots of help from the moon-bat brigade, eager to reduce to Fox poll--and its results--to the level of farce. A text message poll works well for American Idol, but it's hardly appropriate for a supposedly serious presidential candidate debate. With all the cranks and libs participating last night, I wouldn't be surprised if Sanjaya didn't receive a few votes.