GOP Debate Preview: Clashing in the Shadow of Reagan
And then there were four.
Tonight at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., the four remaining candidates -- John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul -- will take to the stage for the final time before Super Tuesday.
Much has changed since last week's rather placid GOP debate in Florida. Rudy Giuliani has formally left the contest and endorsed McCain. McCain's win yesterday in Florida cemented his status as the GOP frontrunner. Huckabee's inability (yet again) to re-create the magic of Iowa has relegated him to second-tier status.
Given all these developments, there is a certain amount of unpredictability surrounding tonight's debate -- sponsored by CNN, Politico and the Los Angeles Times and running on the cable network at 8 p.m. ET.
Below you'll find The Fix's take on what to expect from each of the four candidates tonight. We'll be watching the debate (as always) and weighing in a few times throughout. So stay tuned.
* John McCain: McCain enters tonight's debate riding a huge swell of momentum -- punctuated by the endorsement from Giuliani. Expect McCain to act as though he is already the party's nominee, spending most of his rhetorical ammunition on Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. McCain's goal tonight is to not screw anything up; most Republican strategists -- aligned and unaligned -- agree that if McCain makes no big mistakes between now and Super Tuesday he will almost certainly be the GOP nominee. Tonight's debate is the last major chance for McCain's rivals -- well, let's be honest, Romney! -- to trip him up. McCain needs to avoid getting dragged into a debate with Romney where he looks anything other than magnanimous and presidential.
* Mitt Romney: In last week's Florida debate, Romney occasionally jabbed at McCain but was apparently comfortable enough with the state of the campaign in the Sunshine State that he made no direct attacks. With McCain's win yesterday, any pretense of the race having co-frontrunners is now gone. There's no love lost between McCain and Romney, so it won't be a big surprise if the former Massachusetts governor takes some big swings at the Arizona senator. The likely line of attack? That Romney is the candidate of conservatives while McCain represents the liberal wing of the party on issues like energy, immigration and campaign finance reform. Exit-polling results from Florida show that conservatives still aren't sold on McCain, but they haven't totally bought in to Romney either. Can he sell them tonight?
* Mike Huckabee: For much of the last month, Huckabee has served as a stalking horse for McCain in debates. The former Arkansas governor regularly comes to McCain's defense when the Arizona senator is under attack and never hits McCain when he has opportunities to do so. Even with McCain's win in Florida and emerging frontrunner status, it's hard to imagine Huckabee changing his tune now. Huckabee won't say it, but it seems clear that he would be overjoyed to serve as McCain's vice presidential pick and, if that's the case, he'll do everything he can to help McCain win the nomination. If Huckabee sticks to the script, Romney will be outnumbered two to one tonight.
* Ron Paul: Give Ron Paul this: He's consistent. In tonight's debate we're almost certain to hear Paul excoriate the Bush foreign policy and the administration's approach to Iraq, expound on why he is the only "real" Republican in the race and, maybe, if we're lucky, make mention of the 4,000 babies he has delivered.
January 30, 2008; 6:09 PM ET
Categories: Eye on 2008
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