Knock-Down Drag

The heated GOP YouTube debate entertains but tells us little.

CNN/YouTube Republican debate. Click image to expand.
The CNN/YouTube Republican presidential debate

Rudy Giuliani has an outsized personality, and so when he makes a mistake—as he did during the Republican debate Wednesday night—it is layered and messy. During an otherwise petty and uninformative squabble with Mitt Romney over which candidate had the better immigration record, Giuliani attacked Romney for hiring illegal immigrants to perform yard work “at his mansion.”

Why was this an extraordinary claim? First, Giuliani’s campaign has been pushing the idea that Romney is the nasty campaigner, yet the mayor was the first to get personal. Second, given Giuliani’s complicated personal life—including a messy episode about his mansion and fresh allegations about misuse of city funds during the time when he was beginning an extramarital relationship—you’d think Giuliani would not craft a preplanned attack on the topic of domestic conduct. Also, attacking an opponent for his hiring practices—or the behavior of people he’s hired—would seem an option unavailable to Giuliani, who’s been on the defensive about Bernie Kerik and his other hires. (Romney hired people to work on his house. Kerik was Giuliani’s police chief, and the mayor promoted him to run the Department of Homeland Security.) Finally, the whopper: Giuliani initiated this whole attack on Romney by saying that the governor “criticizes people in a situation in which he’s had far the worst record.” Pot, meet kettle.

Will any of these contradictions matter to voters? Probably not. That’s likely true of the entire debate. Lots of issues voters care about were never discussed—health care, energy, Iran, education. Those issues that were covered didn’t get much illumination. There was squabbling and some good theater, but very little to give us a view into the differences between the major candidates. Anti-immigration crusader Tom Tancredo put the narrow range of the debate into perspective. After listening to the other candidates quarrel about his pet cause, he said, “All I’ve heard is people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo.” Ron Paul played his usual role, but even John McCain’s predictable attack on Paul for wanting to remove troops from Iraq felt like a rerun, despite McCain’s overheated reference to Hitler.

Romney and Giuliani demonstrated again that they are the bickering front-runners of the pack, but Mike Huckabee and John McCain were the actual winners of the evening.  Huckabee may be the most appealing candidate running for president in either party. He was helped by relatively easy questions that he answered well. He also held his own in a tit for tat with Romney over providing scholarships to the gifted children of illegal immigrants. He has always turned in great debate performances. Now that he’s surging in the polls, a great debate performance might really mean something.

Huckabee, the former Baptist minister, got a chance to show off his expertise answering a question about how to interpret the Bible, and John McCain also had a chance to climb into his pulpit when asked a question about water-boarding and torture. He got into a politically helpful spat with Romney over the issue. Romney said it wasn’t prudent for a candidate to voice an opinion on what was and wasn’t torture. McCain argued it was a clear-cut case. The problem for McCain, though, is that he’s had other strong debate performances and his poll numbers haven’t changed, so it’s not clear how much the night will help him.

Romney marched onstage clearly ready to add fight to his usual smiles. He tussled with Giuliani, Huckabee, and McCain. He even wrestled with himself when confronted with a statement about his past support for allowing gays to serve in the military. His equivocal answer about whether he still held that position won boos. Toward the end of the evening, Romney showed what appeared to be genuine disgust when one of the YouTube questioners asked if the Confederate flag was a symbol of political ideology, a symbol of Southern heritage, or a symbol of racism. Romney seemed to pick the latter. He’s been asked during the campaign when he has ever taken a position that was politically harmful. He now has.  He’s just reached the top of the South Carolina polls, and some South Carolina Republicans won’t like his answer on the flag that once flew above the state capitol.

Fred Thompson decided to criticize  his opponents and did so right from the start. After the debate’s opening exchange, he expressed shock that Giuliani would be lecturing Romney on hiring decisions. He then dinged Romney for changing positions. Every candidate produced a 30-second “YouTube-style” video, and Thompson shocked everyone, including moderator Anderson Cooper, by turning his into a kind of attack ad. Instead of promoting himself—as all the other candidates did and the Democrats had in their YouTube debate—Thompson ran old footage of Romney proclaiming that he was pro-choice and Mike Huckabee supporting tax increases. “What’s up with that?” asked Cooper. “These are their words,” said Thompson, whose campaign posted a fuller treatment of the video on his Web site.

The best video of the night came from Rudy Giuliani, who made fun of his penchant for bragging about his New York record. In the video—which looked a lot like his recent commercial—he brags about defeating King Kong. It was perhaps the bright moment of the night for him, since he got lots of sticky other questions on hot-button issues like gun control (he was lightly booed for his answer) and the brewing billing controversy.

The debate ended with what appears to be an emerging trend—the stupid question. The last Democratic debate ended on a question to Hillary Clinton about whether she preferred diamonds or pearls. Rudy Giuliani was asked Wednesday why, as a lifelong Yankees fan, he supported the Red Sox in the World Series. This brought predictable false bonhomie from former Massachusetts Gov. Romney. There were smiles at the end, but they were gone before the candidates left the stage.

Disclaimer: I am a political analyst for CNN, which co-sponsored the debate with YouTube.