Fox and Frienemies

Republican presidentical candidates finally jab each other.

Join John Dickerson for an online chat about how to improve the presidential debates Thursday, May 17, at 2:30 ET at Washingtonpost.com.

One of the winners of the second Republican debate was Fox News Channel. The network hosted the most interesting and innovative debate so far in this election season. Moderators asked probing questions of the 10 candidates and pressed those who ducked them. On some issues, this produced genuine moments of drama. Candidates dropped the usual false bonhomie and demonstrated passive aggression and even genuine aggression toward each other.

This isn’t to say it was a perfect night for Fox. Questioning on Iraq didn’t bring much insight. And if the questioning was serious—no questions that called for hand-raising or quirky topics—the set was goofy. In some kind of bizarre tribute to Bob Barker’s retirement, the debate was held on a game-show set from the ‘70s. Each candidate stood in front of what looked like an illuminated block of ice. Midway through each candidate’s answer, a whooshing sound effect played as their name appeared on the screen. It was so loud it drowned out the candidate and made you want to duck for cover. When the candidates talked beyond their allotted time, a little bell rang, making it sound like somewhere a pastry had just popped up in the toaster.

Enough of the theater review. Here are some observations about the actual candidates:

Rudy Red Face: It was Rudy’s night. The mayor was tepid in the first debate, but he made up for it in the second one, thanks to his opponent Ron Paul. The libertarian candidate asserted that American interventions overseas contributed to the attacks on 9/11, and Giuliani wouldn’t let it stand. He interrupted the order of questioning to chastise Paul and ask him to withdraw the remark. This was not the intellectually complex or thoughtful thing to do, and there’s no doubt that Paul is right—American actions overseas contribute to the way the country is viewed. But as an act of political theater, Giuliani’s interjection was perfect. It’s one thing to say you’re going to be tough, which is the centerpiece of Giuliani’s campaign. It’s much more powerful to show it. Republicans were reminded why they love Giuliani.

The abortion issue was the mayor’s big problem coming into the debate, and he handled questions about it better than he has before. He didn’t get wrapped up in his contradictions. Instead, he asserted his pro-choice position but then made the pivot to talk about national security and the danger of electing a Democrat (specifically Hillary) who doesn’t support the free market or understand the threats facing America. This reframing may not convince influential social conservatives to vote for him, but after weeks of muddled winging-it, Giuliani made his case as cleanly as he probably can. This no doubt delighted advisers who worried that the mayor’s earlier stumbles on this issue suggested he lacked a candidate’s necessary skill of staying on message.

McCain Swats Back: McCain also had a good night. Gone was the bustling hurry-up candidate of the first debate. When Mitt Romney tried a clever knock on McCain’s support for comprehensive immigration and campaign-finance reform, McCain came back with a sharp response that was one of the best lines of the night: “I have kept a consistent position on right to life. And I haven’t changed my position even—on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for.” The flip-flopping attack on Romney is powerful because it’s likely to get replayed a lot on Fox in the coming days.

Perhaps the most impressive moment for McCain came when he reasserted his opposition to torturing terrorist suspects. The candidates were given a scenario about an impending terrorist attack in which some of the perpetrators were caught and detained. Would the candidates allow torture to get information that might prevent another attack? There seemed to be a competition to see who could say yes the fastest. Some candidates appeared ready to do the torturing themselves. McCain said he would in such a science-fiction scenario but then pivoted to argue that in 999,999 out of 1 million cases, torture is wrong.

Romney’s Thrill Is Gone: Maybe expectations were higher after Romney’s relaxed and commanding first debate showing, but tonight he didn’t leave much of an impression. The questions he was asked didn’t allow for much, but he also missed opportunities. He failed to make the easy link to his experience as a businessman when asked about shrinking government. Romney didn’t commit any great errors—except a misfired joke about Massachusetts being a blue state—it’s just that his answers weren’t terribly stirring. His best moment came when he was challenged again on his evolving positions. Had he ever changed his mind to embrace a position the Republican base didn’t like? He had a ready answer, explaining why he gone from wanting to abolish the Department of Education to supporting President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation.

Huckabee Is Right: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made fun of John Edwards’ hair, which is a winner in any GOP contest. “We’ve had Congress that’s spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop,” he said. For a candidate who makes so much of his own appearance (Huckabee shed lots and lots of weight), you’d think he might be a little more generous, but the crowd loved the quip. Social conservatives will also no doubt like Huckabee’s impassioned and reasoned articulation of his opposition to abortion.

Gilmore Goes Gingerly: Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore tried to stir up the debate by making veiled attacks on his opponents, but instead of looking manly he wound up looking confused. At first he said he’d talk about his differences with the others on his Web site. When the moderators convinced him to act like an adult and name names as he does in his speeches, he seemed reluctant and sheepish. Gilmore asserts that he is the true conservative, but he wasn’t acting like a member of the John Wayne Party. That role was Ron Paul’s. Time and again he argued, often using Ronald Reagan’s words, that the United States was wrong to intervene in Iraq and foolish to launch an effort to plant democracy in the Middle East.