08 Republicans: The First Debate Final Analysis

In the aftermath that was the first Republican primary analysis, there was no shortage of campaign staffers doing their best to spin things their way, each making a brave if not misguided bid to convince the world that their candidate won.

This is the nature of politics. Just as it’s a natural thing to watch campaigns tear down their own candidates prior to a debate in a last ditch effort to win the expectation game (funnily enough by losing; you know the deal, get expectations for your own guy so low that he looks like a winner as long as he doesn’t undergo complete and total melt down on television), it is also a natural thing for campaigns to declare undisputed victory following.

It’s the circle of life.

There are no real winners and losers in modern national debates anymore. Everyone knows that, or at least everyone paying attention does. There is no scoring system, and since direct interaction is typically against the rules, it’s very difficult to see one candidate break down another candidate’s claims.

Further, with ten candidates crammed into a ninety-minute debate, in theory each candidate gets a maximum of nine minutes of speaking time (considerably less given that Chris Matthews was moderating).

So while the spin masters scream themselves hoarse trying to prove their candidate won, to get caught up in such flights of fancy would be folly, it would in the end deprive us of the true lessons we can take away from the debates as we see them.

For some of us, it’s the first time we are introduced to some of the candidates, and you can count me as one of these. I’ve never seen or heard of Rep. Paul, or Tommy Tancredo… And in retrospect I kinda wish I never did.

But let’s not play games. I don’t know Republican politics, not nearly as well as Democrat politics, though I think this campaign season is going to be a rather severe crash course for me. What’s makes things trickier is the political landscape. Through the 2004 elections a pretty safe bet was to cling on to President Bush for dear life and hope he drug you through, but oh what a difference three years make.

Which brings us to our first interesting revelation, the abandonment of Bush during the debate. In 2004, Giuliani addressing the Republican National Convention related a little anecdote. Talking about the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, Giuliani remembered grabbing Kerik’s arm and saying, “Thank God Bush is our president.” An anecdote that won him thunderous applause.

But now in 2007, we found praise for Bush scarce, only a few candidates having the grace to praise him for his patriotism and sense of purpose towards the end of the event. Still, flaunting of the success of Bush’s policies was hard to find, and instead you had things like McCain remarking how “mismanaged” the Iraqi war was (though he did say he thought we were on the right track which would only make sense since he is campaigning tremendously on Iraq).

In place of the praise for Bush came the praise for President Ronald Reagan which came in spades. In fact I remembered telling Mike during our live blogging last night that for the next Republican debate we need to keep up a Reagan ticker, just to see if this keeps up.

But ultimately this shows us a peek into the Republican mindset right now. They are searching for an identity. I think that despite all the posturing and tough talk, the party knows it’s off balance, knocked way off track with the voters by President Bush (something I’ve been warning against for years), despite what early national polls say about their chances against Democrats (currently, Rudy would beat Obama by the narrowest margin, beating the rest of the Democratic candidates pretty soundly). And the answer is to hark back to the days of the Great Communicator.

What other reason than to have the debate in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library underneath the shadow of Air Force 1? What other reason to have Nancy Reagan escorted by Arnold Schwarzenegger seated prominently in the front row?

Unfortunately guys, none of you are the Gipper.

I’m not going to profess to know exactly how these candidates played out to the Republican electorate. These things are difficult to tell when you are outside the party, and specifically when the party is at the brink of suffering an identity crisis as I think the GOP currently is.

But we can still look. One thing that struck me as I watched last night was just how angry everyone seemed to be. With the exception of Romney, Giuliani, and Huckabee, the remaining seven candidates just seemed trigger happy and mean. For those who watched the Democrat debate, but missed this one, imagine six pro war Gravels crammed on stage (plus a libertarian Gravel who wants us to crawl inside our borders and stay there in order to account for Paul), and you begin to see what I mean.

Yes, even McCain spoke with the power of thunder as he slammed his fist through the air and jabbed his finger directly at the camera with such ferocity that one began to think that finger was loaded.

And who am I to say? Maybe this will play wonderfully to the base? We know that while a majority of Americans are very much against the war in Iraq and want us out by pretty much any means necessary, there is a very solid block of Republicans that are still backing Bush whole heartedly. There’s still a considerable demographic out there to pander to that will buy all the hard talk.

But I don’t think that’s gonna get them anywhere when it comes to the general election.

By contrast, I was struck with how calm and reasonable Mitt Romney, Mayor Giuliani and Governor Huckabee were. Which brings me to where I really wanted to go with this analysis.

While I can’t predict what will play well with the Republicans, I can tell you what would work in a General Election. I can tell you who I would and wouldn’t fear in a Democratic Election.

For one, there was Rudy. A lot of headlines out there are going to give Rudy the “W” for this one, and for some good reason. From the beginning, Rudy seemed the most comfortable candidate on stage. He did well to pound his record as America’s Mayor into almost every question, and he I think avoided the kind of gaffes that would put his frontrunner status in jeopardy.

On the other hand, he did falter on a couple of questions. One was one of the questions provided by viewers on the internet, and what I think was one of the most clever questions I’ve seen in a while on the debate because it was designed to specifically test a candidate’s knowledge while at the same time minimizing or outright restricting any chance for spinning or falling back on the stump speech.

“What is the difference between Sunnis and Shias?”

The moment Rudy heard this question directed towards him, you could tell he wasn’t happy with it. The fun thing about a question like this is that unlike so many questions in a debate where there really isn’t a right or wrong answer based on hard undisputed facts, this one was, and Rudy fumbled all the way through it. Perhaps for the first time that night we saw the unflappable persona flap, and flap like mad.

In the end he battled his way through it, but I think he still made an error. In all the stumbling around to deliver the text book historical answer, he could have done better to make that knowledge relevant to the current situation in Iraq. He showed he knew something about the culture over there, but what anyone watching last night now knows is that his grasp on what is going on over there is not as deeply grounded in knowledge as maybe it should be.

The second question that took some wind out of Giuliani’s sails was on his opinion if Roe v. Wade was overturned. The rest of the candidates on stage celebrated an idea, many talking about the day Roe v Wade was overturned would be glorious or the greatest day in American history or some such junk like that. And if you haven’t already, trust me when I say you are going to see an awful lot of ink on this, this is where Rudy set himself apart.

But it wasn’t the resounding support for pro choice that one might think either. No, in fact Rudy’s answer was very Kerryesque in the “I voted for it before I voted against it” kinda way. Initially he said it’d be “okay” if the controversial decision was overturned. But then he said it would be okay if it wasn’t. He flip flopped on the question a little and finally had said “I hate abortion,” and started talking about what he did to combat abortion during his tenure as New York mayor. But nowhere did we hear his belief that abortion should be funded for poor women, or anything of the sort.

In all reality, though, pretending to be a Democratic strategist, I don’t worry about the Mayor. Not one little bit. Personally, I predict his campaign is going to implode, and I think it’s going to implode sometime during the primaries. Later than sooner, sure, but still before things go to the Republican National Convention.

I could do a whole post on this, and probably will at some point, but in general I say this because Giuliani is relying heavily on his record, but his record isn’t what he is selling it as, nowhere close, and all of this stuff is going to come out, and it’s going to wound him pretty bad.

So while I would like to see him take the nomination because I think he would be pretty easy to beat in the General Election, I really think he’s got a hell of a gauntlet to run before he even gets that far.

Then there is Huckabee. Huckabee was another Republican I had no experience with before last night, and at first I was impressed. He was putting forth the same typical party line Republican spiel as the men he shared the stage with, but he did it in a different way. While his colleagues were all hellfire and brimstone, Huckabee was calm, mild mannered, and actually seemed like a pretty nice guy.

I could go on extolling my newly formed opinions about Huck, but I’m not going to for one reason. During the debate, a quick question was asked, to be answered by show of hands, who did not believe in evolution. Three hands went up. Senator Brownback, Gov. Huckabee, and Rep. Tancredo.

For me, this is the clincher, and just the fact that Huck has been doing damage control on raising his hand shows that this is a gaffe, and a hurtful one. Yes, the religious right loves this question, and probably this response, however, I think the battle of what to teach in our schools is a losing one for them nationwide, and Huck just screwed himself right out of any chance at electability on this one.

Then you got the Arizona Senator, John McCain. You know, I gotta say, at the beginning, I didn’t think he was doing himself very many favors. He was too harsh, too nervous, too mean like the rest of the field. But you could tell as the debate marched on, John got into his element, calmed down, remembered how to smile, and chilled on the jabbing finger bit a little. His answer on evolution was great, recognizing both those who believe in it, and the religious voters in one fell swoop.

And if I were to be honest, I think McCain probably did the most to help himself among primary voters. He was strong and forceful and played straight into the macho persona I think Republicans like to see, but at the same time he seemed rather level headed, and when you weren’t talking about foreign policy, even electable I daresay.

But if you want my opinion on who I think has the best shot at being an electable candidate, based completely on style alone, it’s gotta be Mitt.

I’ve heard bits and pieces of Romney for a while now, who hasn’t? I’ve heard people make a big deal about how smooth he was, or how liberal he used to be. We’ve heard the tales about him flip flopping on his abortion stance. But one thing above all else that stood out in my mind is this one thing.

That cat is smooth.

On style alone, I give the win to Mitt Romney. In appearance he stands out above all the rest as looking presidential, his tall and lean physique, and perfectly combed hair reminding me of fifties television dads. Compared to the rabid quality of the rest of the field, Mitt seemed the most relaxed throughout, exuding an almost zen like kind of aura. He smiled most of the time, and didn’t stutter on a single question.

In fact I think the only question he flubbed a little last night was on his stance on hunting down Osama bin Laden. And even at that, his full answer was one I agree with. Yes, you gotta catch ObL, but you can’t hinge the entire anti terror effort on it. You get rid of him, someone’s gonna take his spot.

Aside from that, he wasn’t taken off guard easily, or at all, he was endearing, and often times funny. Delivering one of the bigger laugh lines of the night, when asked by Chris Matthews what he would say to a Roman Catholic bishop that denied communion to a politician who was pro choice, Mitt said, “I don’t say anything to Roman Catholic bishops… They can do whatever the heck they want.”

All I’m trying to get at is that I kinda liked Romney, which kinda scares me.

As far as the rest of the candidates, there really wasn’t much to talk about. None of them have a shot in the General Election, most of them struck me as just mean old carbon copies of each other, and for the most part they weren’t even entertaining, except of course Rep. Paul, and Tommy Tancredo.

If last night’s debate were a made for tv movie about the Democratic debate, Ron Paul would be playing the role of Dennis Kucinich, the party extremist who is only made to seem reasonable by the party one trick pony, former senator Mike Gravel played in this case by Tommy Tancredo.

During last night’s liveblogging, Mike made the hilarious observation that Paul was probably pissed off at Tommy whose fences were keeping all the really good weed out.

Seriously though, with Ron Paul, I just found him funny, I honestly think the guy wants to get elected so that he can either bulldoze the White House and Capital Hill, or at the very least turn them into museums.

But this is nothing compared to the comedy that was Tommy Tancredo. On every question save two, Tancredo managed to shift his answer to building a fence on the Southern border. I mean this was his answer to EVERYTHING! Building a fence was Tancredo’s foreign policy, national security, and domestic plan all rolled into one.

You wacky Republicans, you…

But moving on, I just want to get a few things out of the way. Chris Matthews as moderator… eh… probably not so much. A couple of times last night he forgot he wasn’t hosting Hardball. To both Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback, he continued drilling them on questions after both candidates attempted to dodge. Now this may sound great initially, and as a pure partisan, I loved it, but you know, this is a debate, this isn’t a talk show. It’s up to the moderator to ask the questions and enforce the rules, not to play investigative journalist. I took immense pleasure out of both episodes, but I also realize if he did that to my guys, I might get kinda pissed, so let’s not, shall we?

I’d also like to point out to my the Log Cabin Republicans, what the hell is wrong with you? Not only is your party threatening to veto legislation that would help to protect you in the new hate crimes bill, but as we learned last night, if your candidates take the White House, they’re gonna leave you high and dry if an employer fires you on the sole basis of being gay.

Oops… sorry, I’m trying to be objective guy over here. So let’s be objective. Much like the Democratic debate, this debate’s not going to fundamentally change any hearts or minds, I don’t think. I do think that of the winners, you have Giuliani for not gaffing, McCain for starting off kind of weak, but finishing strong, and Mitt Romney for an amazing sense of cool. Unlike the Democratic debate, I don’t think any of the lower tiered candidates here did themselves any favors (as opposed to Biden who I think made a pretty strong showing in last week’s event).

As for the general election, there’s a reason why we are hearing a lot of Reagan talk from the Republican party these days. I think across the board there’s a buzz that the Democrats have a pretty strong field, and the GOP doesn’t. Yes, national polls currently do favor Republicans in the general election, but those polls really don’t mean much of anything right now, we are that far out.

But in the here and now, I honestly don’t think I saw anything last night that could win against one of the Democratic party’s top tiers last night. I’m sorry, it’s just my honest opinion. For all the conflagration in regards to Reagan we saw… no one up there is the next Gipper, and if the field doesn’t change much between now and the first Tuesday of November in 2008, the GOP isn’t going to be happy with who is being put into the White House.

No wonder people are anxious for Fred Thompson to get into the fight…

Note: You can check out our liveblogging of the debate here. For the rest of the primary season, we here at Comments From Left Field will attempt to liveblog every single debate just as we did last night, and encourage everyone to not just come to read, but come and join and participate. Thanks muchly.

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