Lightning but No Thunder

In New Hampshire Republicans debate for a third time.

Rudy Giuliani faces many challenges as a presidential candidate. After the third Republican presidential debate, he has another: God apparently doesn’t approve. As the mayor tried to explain his position on abortion, lightning struck outside the debate hall, knocking out his audio. He’d been asked about the Catholic bishop of Rhode Island, who said the mayor’s pro-choice stance made him like Pontius Pilate. When audio returned, Giuliani tried again and lightning crackled another time. When you are a member of a party that believes that God plays a role in human events, this might be a sign to stay in the private sector. Ed Muskie’s campaign tanked in 1972 when he appeared to cry in public. What happens when you’re a candidate who draws the ire of the Almighty? Giuliani smiled and made a joke. McCain and Romney, who stood on either side of him, backed away quickly in mock fear, as if avoiding the coming brimstone.

The third GOP debate was the last one before Fred Thompson officially enters the race and it demonstrated both why party activists are so anxious to have him run and why the actor will face a tough terrain once he gets in. Republicans need a savior because they are in a tough spot politically as a party. Much of the largely amicable debate focused on immigration, an issue that is tearing the party apart. Candidates were largely united on the other big issue of discussion, Iraq, but the war is deeply unpopular in the country.

When it came time for the candidates to talk about Republicans in Congress or their party leader, George Bush, they distanced themselves. When several were asked how they would use the current president if they succeeded him, the best offer Bush got was from former Cabinet official Tommy Thompson, who suggested he’d send him around the country like McGruff the crime dog, speaking to students to inspire them.

Here are a few observations about individual candidates:

The mayor’s night: Though God might not have been on his side, Giuliani did very well. Everyone expected Romney and McCain to fight over immigration (they’d been trading barbs all week) but it was Giuliani who drew the first contrast with McCain on the issue. When McCain defended the bipartisan agreement, Giuliani boasted that he’d read the 400 page document and criticized McCain’s characterization of his own bill. “This is part of the problem in Washington— they say things and then it’s not in the legislation.” Giuliani had a generous approach to illegal aliens when he was mayor of New York, but his opposition to the bill will be popular with GOP activists.

He seemed commanding during the debate, at ease with facts on issues like health care and immigration. When asked by an audience member what defines an American, his answer, including a quote from Lincoln, was so complete it sounded like he’d been given the question ahead of time. He continued to throw out red meat, attacking Democrats more than his opponents did. GOP voters will like this, and they’ll ignore where he went overboard as the mayor did when claiming the Democratic candidate’s plans for health care are socialized medicine (they’re not) and suggesting they didn’t talk about the threat from Islamic terrorists in their debate Sunday (they did).

Hard times for McCain: “It’s our job to do the hard things,” McCain said, “not the easy things.” As if to prove this, McCain keeps going back to haul stuff off the hard-things shelf. He’s embraced the unpopular troop surge in Iraq more than any other candidate, and on immigration he’s all alone in his support of comprehensive reform. Time and again Tuesday night he battled with his opponents on the immigration bill being debated in the Senate this week. In retrospect, it’s laughable that in the first debate he was asked if he was running away from his support of comprehensive immigration reform.

The McCain bet is that despite the opposition he’s facing, he’ll win votes by looking like a leader. He’s hoping GOP primary voters, even those who disagree with him on a particular position, give him credit for showing resolve and take his standing up now as a sign that he won’t wobble or cave in office. This is a tricky political move, which a McCain supporter framed this way: “Doing the hard thing on immigration may cost him the election but it is what would make him a great president.”

In defending his positions on these two difficult issues, McCain provided two of the evening’s most dramatic moments. In response to a question from the sister of a fallen soldier, McCain stood up, offered his condolences and elaborated on his vision for the future of Iraq and why it would mean her brother would not have died in vain. In the cutaway shots the woman appeared moved by his response. Twice, Duncan Hunter mentioned his son, who is serving in Afghanistan. McCain, who has two sons in the military, withstood the temptation to appeal to sentiment by mentioning his boys, one of whom is a Marine training in the desert in preparation for deployment next month. Responding to a question about immigration, McCain referred to the Hispanic names on the Vietnam wall and the noncitizens fighting in Iraq in a plea to remember the contributions of immigrants whom he referred to as “God’s children.” It was perhaps the only time when his position on immigration was applauded by the audience.

Mitt miss-hit: He started the debate with a thud on a predictable question. He was asked if knowing what he knows now about Iraq, if the war was a mistake. He responded that the question was a “null set,” which is a mathematical term meaning “I’ve never said this out loud near my advisers or I’ve ignored their advice to not say the confusing term out loud again—especially at a debate.” The politically correct answer in a Republican debate is the one Giuliani gave after Romney: Absolutely the right thing to do. Romney got around to asserting this view, but he meandered. He compounded his error by saying if Saddam had allowed IAEA inspectors into the country, there wouldn’t have been a war. Saddam did let them in. For the rest of the debate Romney didn’t leave much of an impression. Normally this probably wouldn’t be a big issue. It’s early in the campaign, he has a lot of money, and he’s doing well in the polls. But with Fred Thompson joining the race, every candidate needed to reassert their brand as voters start to evaluate them next to the newcomer.

Open Mike: Once again, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was the strongest second-tier candidate. He was amusing and thoughtful and given the premium Republicans seem to be putting on folksy Southern conservatives as a part of the Fred Thompson swoon you’d think Huckabee might get a little attention. What might win him that attention were his answers to questions about abortion and evolution. Both times he was reasoned and appealing. I believe there is a God,” he said. “I believe there’s a God who was active in the creation process. Now, how did he do it and when did he do it and how long did it take, I don’t honestly know… and I don’t think knowing that would make me a better president.” When asked to name one pressing moral issue in the country, he urged those who are pro-life to demonstrate that they care about all life, from children “under a bridge or in the back seat of a car” to the elderly neglected in a nursing home, as much as they do the unborn life in the womb.

Those answers will attract social conservatives and their financial support (crucial at this stage for Huckabee) because not only will they agree with what he says, and the fact he’s willing to stand up and say it, but because social conservatives will see him as an appealing representative of their views. They may not think he’s going to be the next president but they might be inclined to want him in the race as an advocate.