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Expecting Clarity, Republicans Get More of a Muddle


Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani put on vastly different performances in St. Petersburg.(AP).


If candidate debates were any indicator, Mike Huckabee would be entering the month of December as the front-runner for the Republican nomination.

On stage with his rivals in St. Petersburg Wednesday night, Huckabee once again demonstrated a mastery of the moment that none of the others could match. He had the night's most memorable lines, as has often been the case, mixing humor with a facility to think on his feet under pressure.

But more than that he appeared totally comfortable in his own conservative skin -- enough to say he does believe that every word in the Bible is the literal truth or to remind Mitt Romney that the children of illegal immigrants should not be punished for the crimes of their parents.

The CNN/YouTube debate seemed ready made for Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney to expand their weekend clash in New Hampshire and for one or the other to begin to take control of the Republican nomination contest. After months of muddle, the GOP race appeared on the brink of greater clarity.

Instead the two-hour event was a reminder of why Republican voters have struggled to find a leader among the many choices before them. With the spotlight on them, Giuliani and Romney faltered. The certainly squabbled with one another, opening the debate with a fight on immigration that quickly turned personal in tone.

But there was nothing clarifying about that exchange. Beyond that, Giuliani found himself on the defensive with questions that again showed him at odds with the party's conservative base and that raised troubling questions about his judgment and record. Romney wavered over several questions, including one on gays in the military that showed another change in position, and he got on the wrong side of John McCain during a testy exchange on the issue of torture.

McCain rivaled Huckabee for his command of the stage Wednesday night. Passionate on Iraq, chastened but still compassionate on immigration and indignant on why anyone could argue that waterboarding does not constitute torture, the Arizona senator showed again that he has regained his voice as a candidate -- if not yet the momentum needed to make himself a major factor in the race.

McCain saved some of his trademark indignation for Ron Paul, accusing him of embracing the kind of appeasement and isolationism that allowed Hitler to rise in Germany. Paul, who has surprised many people with the zeal of his grassroots support and his unrivaled capacity to raise money on the Internet, accused McCain of distorting his views, but more in the audience sided with McCain.

Fred Thompson delivered one of the more baffling performances. He shocked his rivals and the debate organizers by taking the opportunity provided to all candidates to produce a 30-second video in the spirit of the YouTube culture and using it to produce a 30-second hit job on Romney and Huckabee. "What's up with that?" CNN's Anderson Cooper asked.

Thompson looked like he might be ready to step into the middle of the GOP race in a way he hasn't yet done, taking on both Romney and Giuliani during an opening exchange on immigration. After that he often seemed to have disappeared. Even when given a question that seemed to play to his strengths, his answers had a rambling and unfocused quality.

The best example of that was on what should be done to shore up Medicare and Social Security. Thompson has a bolder and more specific plan for Social Security than his rivals, but no one listening to him on Wednesday would know it. He described it in the most general of terms.

"We can do some things now, as I've proposed about Social Security, without having to really hurt anybody and give people to invest for their future while they're still working.," he said.

Given the quality of the competition on Wednesday, it isn't hard to see why Huckabee stood out.

What's been interesting about Huckabee is that he has consistently handled the kinds of questions that are designed to make Republicans squirm. Repeatedly he has been tossed questions about religion, faith, gay rights, abortion, creationism, the Bible. Last night he got one about whether the United States should make it a priority of the space program to launch a manned mission to Mars -- not exactly one of the burning issues Americans are thinking about.

The reason is that Huckabee isn't yet treated seriously enough as a contender to be given the mainline questions. Nor have debate moderators shown an interest in probing more deeply his views on bread-and-butter issues. He is treated as the candidate who can provide comedic relief or a theological understanding of GOP orthodoxy on divisive social issues.

The You/Tube debate did a disservice to the Republicans, but particularly to Huckabee, by devoting so much time to these kinds of issues. Bringing ordinary people into the debates is valuable and the directness of their questions is refreshing -- even more so in the Democratic You/Tube debate.

But over two hours, the candidates were asked nothing about issues that are highest on the list of concerns of most Americans. The time spent on immigration -- which is an important and divisive topic -- shed heat but little light on what comes next. But there was little beyond that.

There was nothing on health care, a topic likely to be at the center of the general election debate. The environment, global warming, education and energy were missing in action. Iran and Iraq were barely mentioned.

All of which is a way of saying that Mike Huckabee is got a pass in Wednesday's debates. At a time he is rising in Iowa and at a time when the Republican race is entering its decisive and most competitive phase, what Republican voters need is a fuller sense of what he thinks beyond the social issues.

That he is the most consistently conservative on many of those issues seems without question, but what the rest of his conservatism adds up to is far less clear. Democrats who have watched him from a distance see a potentially formidable candidate who combines social conservatism with economic populism in a personally attractive package. But not enough is known about this dark-horse-turned-contender to reveal what kind of president he would be, and Wednesday's debate did little to answer those questions.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 29, 2007; 12:22 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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