Debate Opens Elimination Round for GOP
DES MOINES-- Call them the bold and the -- not beautiful, exactly. More like the bold and the cautious. The candidates for the Republican presidential nomination debated Sunday morning and generally broke down into two groups: the leading, and cautious, candidates. And those who are fading fast, but hoping for a miracle in next week's Iowa straw poll.
Sen. John McCain and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who are skipping the straw poll, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who appears well ahead in Saturday's contest, did not go out on a limb during the morning debate on ABC's "This Week" program.
Rather, the leading contenders stuck to their well-honed scripts. Giuliani and Romney attacked democrats and stressed their executive experience. McCain repeatedly touted his long service to the country and his belief that America will win the war in Iraq, eventually. Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson -- still a non-candidate -- took the ultimate safe route: he didn't bother showing up.
If the debate among the three were a car accident, a police officer might be yelling "Move along. Nothing to see here."
By contrast, the second-tier candidates -- those who have struggled to raise money and barely register in national polls -- were more fiesty, hoping to spark an upset in the straw poll. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo were particularly energetic.
For any of the three, besting Romney's well-financed campaign machine in Iowa could catapult them into the first tier of candidates -- or at least force the media and the pundits to take a second look. Money might begin flowing in. Volunteers could come out of the woodwork.
For Romney, a defeat would be an embarassment. After Giuliani and McCain both dropped out, his decision to stay in looked like an easy one. But if he were to come in second or third, people might begin to raise questions about the depth of his support. Romney would have to work to spin his way out of that.
And for that, Sunday's debate might have served as a warm-up exercise.
In the Spin Room on the Drake University campus, the campaigns were certainly ready. Several of the candidates --Tommy Thompson, Huckabee and Brownback among them--made themselves available to the media for upbeat post-game analyses of their performances in the ABC News debate.
Romney, Giuliani and McCain didn't show up, but they were more than adequately represented by their surrogates. You couldn't walk three feet without running into someone from Romney's team and the Giuliani forces included former solicitor general Ted Olson and former House member Bill Paxon.
Former senator Jim Talent, there on behalf of Romney, reported back to his team, "I've got the British press covered. The governor's going to get support in London!"
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of McCain's loyal surrogates, summed up the scene best when he said, "There are more spinners than people to be spun." With that, he decided it was time to leave.
-- Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
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