Dan Balz's Take
A GOP Race That Refuses to Narrow
Rudy Giuliani and John McCain long ago traded places in the Republican presidential campaign, but after Sunday's Florida debate, the former mayor should not make the mistake of misjudging the Arizona senator the way McCain once underestimated him.
Mitt Romney has longed to turn the Republican race into a two-person contest with Giuliani. Sunday's debate reminded him he has other competitors he may have to deal with first. As a result, the Republican race gets more and more intriguing.
In almost all ways, Giuliani and McCain have been respectful rivals. At an earlier debate, Giuliani said that, if he weren't in the race, he probably would be endorsing McCain. For his part, McCain has often had kind words for the former mayor and his performance after terrorists attacked New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
But as rivals, neither has fully appreciated the damage the other could do to his hopes of winning the Republican nomination. McCain made the mistake first; now Giuliani threatens to repeat it.
A year ago at this time, McCain was seen as the nominal frontrunner for the GOP nomination and his 2008 campaign already was moving at a swift pace. He was trying to court members of President Bush's political network, putting together organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, gathering endorsements and recruiting fundraisers.
McCain's advisers saw Giuliani as a minimal obstacle in their path to the nomination. Many of them doubted he would formally become a candidate. Like other supposedly smart people in the political community, they assumed he was too socially liberal ever to be a serious threat to lead a party that has been socially conservative since Ronald Reagan became president.
Fast forward through the spring and summer and the two have undergone a role reversal. Now Giuliani is the nominal frontrunner -- however fragile -- and McCain is viewed as the lightly regarded and seemingly implausible contender for the nomination.
McCain's summer implosion appeared to have ended all hope for his candidacy. On Sunday night, however, McCain was full of life on the stage in Orlando. If not the clear winner of the liveliest Republican debate of the year, he delivered many of the evening's most memorable moments.
McCain can be a slow starter in these debates, but after warming up with an afternoon town hall meeting, he hit the stage running. His opening line was a zinger aimed at his nemesis, Romney, over who was the real conservative in the race.
"Governor Romney, you've been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record," he said. "I don't want you to start fooling them about mine... I stand on my record of a conservative and I don't think you can fool the American people. I think the first thing you'd need is their respect."
A few minutes later, he had the audience cheering and laughing at Hillary Clinton's expense, while reminding everyone that his public service includes six years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton. Blasting Clinton's proposal to spend $1 million in tax dollars for a memorial to the Woodstock rock concert, a "cultural and pharmaceutical event" that he said he could not attend because, "I was tied up."
Still later he rattled Russian President Vladimir Putin's house with a line appropriated from former secretary of state Colin Powell and some tough talk suggesting troubles for the Russian leader if he were to become president.
Mocking President Bush's comments after the first Bush-Putin meeting, McCain said that when he had looked into Putin's eyes, "I saw three letters: a K, a G and a B." He continued by saying, "He bullies his neighbors and he wants to get a control of the energy supply of Western Europe. This is a dangerous person. And he has to understand that there's a cost to some of his actions."
The last thing Giuliani needs now is a McCain on the rebound. He prefers a rising Mike Huckabee and an improving Fred Thompson to splinter further the most conservative wing of the party and thereby cut into Romney's potential support. That's just what appears to be happening.
The weekend's events showed Romney was premature to assume his only real rival is Giuliani. He saw Huckabee's powerful appeal to religious and social conservatives in the results of the straw poll among those who attended the Values Voters summit in Washington. Huckabee ran away from the field, according to those who heard the candidates speak. On Sunday night, Thompson showed he had learned from some of his early missteps, delivering a more effective performance than in his first debate.
The more that conservative voters are divided, the better for Giuliani. The danger for Giuliani from a revitalized McCain candidacy comes in New Hampshire. The Giuliani campaign sees New Hampshire as the best opportunity to derail Romney's early-state strategy, but he and McCain are competing there, especially for many of the same socially moderate voters. McCain's roots there are stronger than anywhere else, a byproduct of his big 2000 victory over Bush in the state.
Where Giuliani still has an edge over McCain is in his zeal to attack Clinton, which by every indication is something Republican voters are anxious to see in their nominee. McCain is more respectful of his Senate colleague than are the other GOP candidates, and Giuliani has made attacks on Clinton one of his calling cards in the nomination battle.
Giuliani ought no longer assume that McCain is a non-factor in the Republican race. Given his limited resources and his long history of antagonism with some parts of the conservative base, McCain's chances of winning the nomination are still limited. But almost every vote he attracts may be one that Giuliani was counting on winning a few months ago.
Romney ought not to assume Thompson will continue to sputter and Huckabee won't be able to enlarge his support, particularly in Iowa. The Republican race may yet become a contest between Giuliani and Romney, but it may have some significant twists ahead before it reaches that point.
Posted at 1:35 PM ET on Oct 22, 2007
Dan Balz's Take
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