The Republican YouTube Debate: Initial Thoughts

Tonight was the long-awaited Republican YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Florida. This debate was a particularly nasty one in which several candidates drew blood. This post will only provide a general overview of my thoughts on the debate. A more detailed analysis of the evening's happenings will be written tomorrow or Friday.

The setup

The leading candidates were placed at the center of the stage and the lower-tier candidates were placed on the sides. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were placed next to each other, which made for several tense exchanges. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter were essentially the bookends on stage. I thought this was a smart decision by CNN. I hope future debate organizers continue this arrangement.

CNN and the moderator

Anderson Cooper did a better job of handling this debate than Wolf Blitzer did at the last CNN Democratic debate in Las Vegas. Keep in mind that "better" is a relative term, rather than an absolute one. Cooper did not have much control over this debate, as the candidates commonly ignored his prompts to wind up their responses, especially in the first half of the debate when most of the fireworks took place. To Cooper's credit, however, he did do a respectable job of following up on some of the candidates' responses and reminding them of the questions they were actually asked.

To CNN's credit, this debate was better produced than the Democratic one and the post-debate analysis was more interesting to watch because they focused on all of the candidates (save for Tancredo and Hunter), instead of just the top two or three (as in the Clinton-Obama lovefest happening with the media and the Democratic race).

Mitt Romney

This debate was a disaster for Romney. He had several weak moments, including getting dressed down by John McCain on torture, getting broadsided by Giuliani on illegal immigration, flubbing a question about believing every word in the Bible, and getting caught flat-footed when his previous remarks about gays in the military blew up in his face. Republicans in South Carolina also likely were not impressed with his answer on the Confederate flag. In short, Romney came across as someone who had no core convictions, and that is not presidential at all.

Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani turned in a stronger performance than Romney, but his problems with social conservatives are not going away. I believe there is significant overlap between voters who value national security and voters who value their rights to bear firearms. Giuliani's hedging response to the question about access to guns probably gave these voters some pause. And will talk about "appointing strict constructionist judges" really be enough to offset the fact that he is obviously a pro-choice federalist? Women voters also might not have liked the way he attacked Mitt Romney on the issue of illegal immigrants working at his "sanctuary mansion." Giuliani did mention September 11 again tonight, but it did not seem to have the potency it once did.

Fred Thompson

Thompson's performance was a bit steadier than Giuliani's and Romney's, but I get the sense that his ship has sailed. He had a few funny lines, but his answers were often droning, uneven, and uninspiring. Questions about how seriously he is taking this campaign will not be doused by his performance tonight. And for a candidate who is trying to position himself as the favorite of Southern conservatives, will they be disappointed by his statements about the Confederate flag? Moderates and more progressive-minded voters were likely pleased, but I notice when he made those remarks, there was very little applause from the audience. Thompson didn't hurt himself tonight, but I don't think he will emerge with much momentum.

John McCain

McCain was arguably the winner of the debate. His answers were firm and he came across as a resolute, pragmatic, honest, battle-tested statesman. He seemed to be the grown-up on stage, as his remarks placed him above the fray that was developing between Romney and Giuliani. The moral authority he had regarding torture came through in the way he criticized Romney for not unequivocally stating that he was against the practice of waterboarding. Independent New Hampshire voters likely were reminded of the John McCain they fell in love with in 2000. The question for McCain, however, is how many of these independent voters will actually vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary? Keep in mind that independents can vote in any party primary they wish. Will these independents show up at the polls for McCain? Or will they show up for Barack Obama?

Mike Huckabee

Simply put, Mike Huckabee is serious. I've been writing about Huckabee for several months now and the evidence continues to mount that this is probably the single most difficult Republican for Democrats to defeat, especially if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton. He successfully fielded several potentially dangerous questions, such as a question about the apparent contradiction between being pro-life and supporting the death penalty. He also had the line of the night in which he said that Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office. Evangelical Christians have found their candidate, and it's not Mitt Romney. I have detected a change in the way the media are covering Huckabee over the past week or so, however. Some of the questions he received were softballs, like the question about how much of the Bible he believed. I expect him to have to explain his policies in more detail in the future, as opposed to simply explaining his values. When will he be asked about his desire to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service, for example? Anyway, people often talk about a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket, but if Huckabee keeps up these strong performances, he may very well emerge as the lone remaining conservative alternative to a Rudy Giuliani nomination.

Ron Paul

I get the sense that the other Republican candidates are absolutely sick of Ron Paul. His foreign policy and Iraq positions are clearly out of step with the GOP base and the audience made their disapproval known several times when they booed him. However, of all the candidates, Ron Paul did the most thorough job of explaining his policies and why his opponents' policies were wrong. One of his best moments came when he talked about the folly of spending so much money to "blow up bridges and buildings in Iraq when we could use that money to build bridges and buildings here." One of the questions he received asked if he would run as an independent in the event that he doesn't win the Republican nomination. Even though the establishment clearly doesn't seem to like him, I sense that his appeal among regular voters is quite real.

Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter

There really is no point in keeping these two candidates on stage. Neither candidate brought much to the debate in terms of their own ideas or putting other candidates on the defensive. When will Tancredo and Hunter get the Mike Gravel and Alan Keyes treatment?

In short...

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are probably not feeling too hot right now.

John McCain and Mike Huckabee should continue their rise in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively.

Fred Thompson stopped the bleeding in the polls, but it might be too little too late.

Ron Paul is directing his own movie.

Expect a tightening of the polls in the early voting states and nationwide over the next few days. The race for the GOP presidential nomination is truly a case study in political schizophrenia.

A more detailed analysis will follow later this week.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful analysis, as usual.

Nikki said...

I just finished watching the debate and I admit I didn't have the patience for most of it. I don't think Romney stuck it up until closer to the end. Tonight I actually saw a bit of likability in Mitt that has been missing for quite some time.
I originally thought Huckabee looked pretty good but as I watched the beginning I got a little uneasy with his preachy "Gomer Pyle" innocent style of talking, to me he sounds the most scripted.
John McCain was in a war did you know that? tiresome. Rudy decreased crime by 80 billion percent. tiresome. Fred was too busy telling what other candidates stood for and rambled. Rudy and Mitt are at eachothers throats which probably will make for great headlines tomorrow. Same old Same old. And I think Rudy should have read your piece on Republicans and the Black vote, he really bombed that question. He didn't even come close to answering it.......looking forward to more analyzing

Nikki said...

Oh yea I thought Anderson Cooper was great......

ryanshaunkelly said...

HDNet Dec 1 DNC debate (Sat 7:30pm ET).
- all eight -

gravel kucinich paul nader

Anonymous said...

Anthony, look foward to the in depth one, but this was a great introduction to that debate. I think McCain showed us a little of that "fire in the belly" that made him so likeable in 2000 - I hope to see more of it. Huckabee also has been fortunate for the shift in coverage as you said. However, and no one has brought this up yet, but his wife (demeanor, lack of savvy, former political run, tendency to make some "cringeful," to quote the English, quotes - and more) could make her a MAJOR liability to him if her were the nominee and media scruitiny started to focus tightly on him and one other candidate only.

Unfortunately I did not get to see the whole Mit-Rudy exchange AND I missed the Confederate flag responses. If anyone knows where I can find a full transcript of the debate today I would be much appreciative.

Silence Dogood said...

That last comment was by Silence Dogood

Schenck said...

Hmmm... "the Gravel treatment."

Tancredo and Hunter should be axed because they provide neither fresh ideas nor revealing facts about the other candidates. Gravel's axing was an action of censorship by the mass media as he provided only original ideas and scathingly inconvenient facts. I'm sure his expulsion greatly increased how much we heard from the other Democratic candidates, considering he only received about one minute of talking time anyways.

Nicely done, otherwise.

Schenck said...

One minute per debate, that is.

Anthony Palmer said...

Anonymous 1: Thanks.



This debate was not particularly inspirational. The way the leading candidates kept going at each other's throat diminished them all, in my opinion. Basically, the GOP field presented itself as very weak at that debate, with the exception of maybe 2 candidates who are not at the top of the polls. This is why Democrats are nervous. Even a Democrat can beat these Republicans next year, but can THAT Democrat (Clinton) actually do it too? There's a real fear among Democrats that a Clinton nomination will lead to another Kerryesque defeat.



I think McCain is at his best when he's not trying to sound like more of a rightwinger than he really is. He turned in strong performances when it came to torture and spending, but was way out of line when he brought up Hitler in his attack on Ron Paul.



I agree with you that Gravel did bring some new ideas and inconvenient truths to the table. In fact, I think he may be about 30 years ahead of his time. But I think the reason why he was axed is because he barely has any campaign organization and is not seen as a credible candidate because of it. Where does one draw the line? Should anyone be allowed in the debates even if they have no campaign apparatus, no money, and no polling? If so, then I'll gladly run in 2012! By the way, did you see Gravel's new rap video?

Thanks for the comment.

Schenck said...
This post has been removed by the author.
Schenck said...

Palmer, you're right. Ron Paul has done a MUCH better job organizing his Paulites. Gravel supporters are few and far between, but worse, they don't know each other. Two words: public funding. It's not everything, but it's the root of the problem (the lack thereof, that is).

Have not seen the rap video, DEFINITELY will check that out. Sounds hilarious.

Are you going to watch the HDNet debate?

oso diablo said...

as a Huckabee supporter, i would love to see him get substantive policy questions, rather than merely the religion-based questions. The current approach, intentional or not, is a form of marginalization.