The GOP Shooting Gallery
At the most recent Democratic debates, the dynamics were pretty clear -- the trailing candidates focused their fire on the front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), and eventually she lashed back. In St. Petersburg, Fla., last night, the the Republican debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube was more of a shooting gallery, with everyone squeezing off rounds almost indiscriminately at everyone else.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's accused each other of being soft on illegal immigration. Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson used a video to accuse Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee of being closet liberals, while using his time on stage to take a subtle dig at Giuliani for appointing now-indicted former police commissioner Bernard Kerik. Huckabee and Romney squared off over educating children of illegal immigrants. Arizona Sen. John McCain blistered Romney for not ruling out waterboarding detainees, attacked Giuliani for opposing the line-item veto and essentially likened Texas Rep. Ron Paul to Neville Chamberlain appeasing Adolf Hitler.
And so it went. The almost random nature of some of the exchanges underscored the fluidity of the Republican nomination battle just five weeks before the first votes will be cast. In politics, no one bothers to attack someone who is not a threat, yet this year so far no single Republican candidate has laid an unequivocal claim to the lead and so everyone was trying to take down everyone else. As Huckabee said at one point, "One thing I've learned, you know, when you get attacked, it's not always bad. It's like my old pastor used to tell me -- when they're kicking you in the rear, it's just proving you're still out front."
At least five candidates on stage last night thought, or at least hoped, that applied to them and each of them had different datapoints to cling to. Huckabee has surged in Iowa to a strong second place in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll and one recent survey, by Rasmussen, even puts him out in front with a three-point lead over Romney. Thompson is tied with Romney in the latest Rasmussen poll in South Carolina, though behind in other surveys. For his part, Romney remains ahead in New Hampshire, his neighboring state, but McCain harbors hopes of repeating his 2000 victory there. Giuliani, while lagging in all the early states, holds onto a double-digit lead in national polls in the latest compilation by RealClearPolitics.com
The scattershot pattern of attacks last night demonstrated a significant evolution in the Republican campaign. At the beginning of the year, the second-tier candidates more or less teamed up in going after the three front-runners at the time, McCain, Giuliani and Romney, from the right, as best encapsulated by the dig by former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who referred to them as "Rudy McRomney." Now Gilmore is out, Thompson is in, McCain is no longer the leader and Huckabee is breaking into the front of the pack. And now all of the candidates are accusing each other of not being conservative enough.
Immigration was the hottest flashpoint last night, as Romney took aim at Giuliani from the first question about so-called sanctuary cities that provide some haven for people in the country illegally.
"It's unfortunate, but Mitt generally criticizes people in a situation in which he's had [by] far the worst record," said Giuliani, who went on to accuse Romney of using illegal immigrants for work at his own home. "So I would say he had [a] sanctuary mansion, not just [a] sanctuary city."
"Mayor, you know better than that," Romney retorted, defending himself by saying the firm used at his home was responsible for knowing whether its employees were legal, not him as the customer.
"If you're going to take this holier-than-thou attitude that you are perfect on immigration -- " Giuliani started to scold.
"I'm not perfect," Romney interjected.
"It just happens you have a special immigration problem that nobody else up here has," Giuliani replied. "You were employing illegal immigrants. That's a pretty serious thing. They were under your nose."
That set the tone. Romney and Huckabee also squared off on immigration, focusing on the former Arkansas governor's support for a failed bill making children of illegal immigrants who had grown up in state schools eligible for academic scholarships.
"It reminds me of what it's like talking to liberals in Massachusetts," Romney said after Huckabee explained his position.
"We are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did," Huckabee shot back.
Thompson, for all his laid-back demeanor on stage, came in loaded for bear with the only video directly attacking his rivals, showing footage of Romney supporting abortion rights in the past and Huckabee supporting tax increases in the past. The video was so stark that it threw CNN moderator Anderson Cooper, who abruptly decided not to go straight to commercial afterward as planned and instead let Romney and Huckabee respond first.
But if the others seemed like they were squabbling, it fell again to McCain to express righteous indignation -- characteristically from both the left and the right. While most of the candidates typically ignore Paul, the libertarian antiwar candidate who has been a sensation on the Internet if not in the polls, McCain went out of his way to engage him on the question of Iraq.
"I want to tell you that that kind of isolationism, sir, is what caused World War II," McCain said. "We allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement."
"What John is saying is just totally distorted," Paul replied. "He doesn't even understand the difference between non-intervention and isolationism."
The moment of maximum tension, though, came when Romney was asked about waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, and said he would not publicly rule in or out any particular interrogation technique for fear of tipping off the enemy. He then went on to say, "I want to make sure that what happened to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed happens to other people who are terrorists." Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, reportedly was subjected to waterboarding.
"Governor, I'm astonished that you haven't found out what waterboarding is," said McCain, visibly seething and refusing to look at Romney.
"I know what waterboarding is, Senator," Romney tried to interject.
"Then I am astonished that you would think such a torture would be inflicted on anyone in our -- who we are held captive and anyone could believe that that's not torture," McCain said. He added: "We're not going to do what Pol Pot did. We're not going to do what's being done to Burmese monks as we speak. ... How in the world anybody could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted by Americans on people who are held in our custody is absolutely beyond me."
Romney tried to deflect McCain's anger rather than confront him, acknowledging that the former Vietnam prisoner of war had "the credentials" to come to his conclusion. "That's something which I'm going to take you're and other people's counsel on," Romney said. But it failed to soothe McCain.
And so the candidates left the hall in Florida last night more divided than ever, with everyone a little bloodied and everyone's fingerprints on the weapons. It made for a more engaging two hours than any debate so far this year and perhaps even illuminating as some tough issues were hashed out and differences explored. But it also made clear that the next 35 days and beyond could be an unpredictable free for all. Time to break out the flak jackets.
-- Peter Baker
November 29, 2007; 11:29 AM ET
Categories: A_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet
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