I managed to catch the midnight rerun of the Republican debate in Florida on MSNBC last night. Allow me to give you might thoughts on the performances and even a little on the status of the campaigns. Start with the best performance of the night and move down.
1. Mitt Romney
Even right out of the gate I thought Romney gave a dominating performance. The commentators last night, and many in the papers today are attributing this to the fact that the candidates didn't go after each other like the democrats have been doing. We can speculate, but it doesn't really matter. The fact is that Romney, as has become his style, looked presidential, sounded presidential and had all the right answers.
But hey, I'm biased.
Regardless of who you believe "won" the debate, there must at least be a consensus that Romney had the line of the night when asked by Tim Russert whether he is ready to face a campaign against both Hillary and Bill Clinton stating that he "can't imagine Bill Clinton in the White House again with nothing to do..."
Romney, in my mind really established himself as the guy to beat once again, in not just Florida, but the national race as well.
Romney really got put on the spot by Russert when he was asked is he would share with Florida how much of his own money he has spent on his campaign here. Romney explained that he wouldn't for strategy reasons as he didn't want to reveal that to his opponents just yet but would when the law requires. I think that was a fair answer. But then he really hit it out of the park by explaining that:
1. He has raised more money than any of his opponents,
2. He couldn't ask his others to donate to his campaign if he was not willing to make a substantial contribution himself, and
3. The fact that he is his own biggest contributor means that when elected he won't owe anyone anything.
2. Mike Huckabee
Huckabee really gave a fantastic performance. He was certainly the most likable of all the candidates. He also managed to stay relevant in the debate which is important for a guy that is going to have a hard time remaining relevant in the upcoming primaries. A few things he said concerned me though. Huckabee really pushed the idea of the Fair Tax, which I'm not opposed to, but he made it seem like that was the end all solution to all our financial woes. I'm sure that is not what he believes, but lets look at an example.
Huckabee was asked about problems with social security. His solution? The Fair Tax. Why? because that would allow a more stable source of funding for the program. That is not what I want to hear from a Conservative candidate. The answer is, social security is broken and we need to find ways to begin moving away from it and replacing it with a financially stable system. Romney was hit with a similar question right after Huckabee and responded with three viable solutions. He also explained that these options would have to be explored with the democrats to reach an agreement on the best solution. Romney sounded realistic. I don't want to say Huckabee is dreaming because I think the Fair Tax is certainly a possibility, though it may be a good distance off. Romney has solutions for us now.
Another thing that concerned me was when Huckabee was asked about whether he agreed with Chuck Norris, who endorsed him, that John McCain is too old to be president. Huckabee responded that he was with Norris when the comment was made and that he didn't say anything because he was standing next to Chuck Norris who "can put this foot on that side of my face and there is nothing I can do about it." He went on to explain that later he made clear that he doesn't think that McCain lacks the capacity to be president.
It was a cute answer, but the fact of the matter is that Huckabee stayed silent after the comment was made not because he was afraid of getting kicked in the face. I realize that it was one of those in the moment experiences and he may have said something if he could go back. However, it bothers me a little that the guy that is most vocal about other candidates changing with the polls stays silent when the comment is made, but then reveals this strong conviction about it mostly likely after a strategy meeting on how to handle it. I'm probably making something out of nothing, but something just didn't sit right with me.
I like Huckabee, but he didn't do anything to resolve my fears about his domestic policy positions.
3. Ron Paul
Confession: I love making Ron Paul out to be the crazy of the group, but I have to admit he is a sharp guy. Not all of his ideas are that bad. I thought his performance last was the best I've seen so far from him. But his question to McCain about whether he would abolish the President's Working Group on Financial Markets confused me. Most Americans don't know or care about the PWG and Paul wastes his one chance to really distinguish himself on trying to pin McCain to a position that no one cares about. Paul is playing to a fringe audience in this primary, and that is why he will remain a fringe candidate.
4. John McCain
McCain looked comfortable, as well he should given his current poll numbers. I was a little confused by his presentation however, as he kept claiming that he is a Conservative but every chance he got he touted when he broke away from Republicans and Conservatives. Let me assure you, McCain is no Conservative. That said, he didn't do anything to really hurt himself last night, sat back a little, and tried to demonstrate that he's not as old as he may appear to be. Exactly what the old guy in the lead needs to be doing.
If nothing else, the fact that the New York Times just endorsed McCain proves that McCain is no Conservative.
5. Rudy Giuliani
As the guy who is betting everything on Florida, Giuliani needed to have his best performance. Instead, he looked like a man on the run. His campaign is watching this focus on Florida strategy fail miserably as he has absolutely no momentum. My guess is that this will be the last time we see this strategy employed. Giuliani made the comment during the debate that he had lulled the competition into a false sense of security, which was cute. But the fact is that he doesn't decide the result of the election. We do. And it is the voters have been lulled into the impression that his campaign in about to collapse.
After the race, Giuliani's campaign manager was asked about the dropping poll numbers and he responded that people are most concerned about the "issues" that the "horse race." It is not that simple. Voters are concerned with both. The truth is that front-runners are attractive because people don't want to feel like they are throwing their vote away. I was at dinner with an Evangelical family last night who asked who I though they should vote for. They like Huckabee, but wanted to vote for someone who was electable as well to help the cause of the best candidate with the best chance. For the Huckabee supporters out there, I didn't tell them that a vote for Huckabee was a wasted vote. I did sell them on Romney, however...
Giuliani looked like Giuliani last night. Great guy, great leader, but nothing to pull himself out in front of the other candidates.