If Rudy Giuliani really were the tough-on-crime candidate, he would have arrested Alan Keyes at the Des Moines Register debate. Keyes, who you may not know is running for president, was allowed onstage by the debate hosts, the Des Moines Register and the local PBS station. (Here’s why.) Keyes returned to his role from the 2000 and 1996 races as the self-obsessed, bullying, petty scold. He can be a compelling orator, but a loudmouth, serially failing candidate with no chance of winning the nomination should not eat up airtime the other candidates could have used. Give him a podcast. He has no business being onstage.
To the extent that Keyes was a beneficial force, the benefit went to Mike Huckabee, who is running as a second-generation social conservative candidate. Huckabee speaks of the Sermon on the Mount, while Keyes speaks as if he were delivering thunderbolts from high upon it. Seeing a first-generation social conservative candidate puff himself up into full self-parody one last time brought into high relief the tolerance and Christian generosity Huckabee has shown during much of the campaign. This came at a good time for the former Arkansas governor, since he has been on the defensive for his intolerant and intemperate comments about homosexuality and AIDS as well as his remarks about Mormonism.
Huckabee didn’t need Keyes to help him. He did just fine on his own. His front-runner status fit him Wednesday afternoon (unlike his suit) as he gave thoughtful answers on issues from education to unemployment. He was also aided by his opponents’ timidity. They have been attacking him in the mail and on television (he quipped that he had a paramedic kit backstage), but they didn’t take him on when the cameras were rolling.
The other candidates did fine but didn’t stand out. There were no real losers among the top tier. Romney was at his best. He had no bad moments and shed the brittle insistence of some of his previous performances. He recited all of his talking points and took an opportunity to demonstrate how his business background could streamline government. When talking about education, he sounded like Rudy Giuliani (in a good way), effectively citing a host of facts about his tenure in Massachusetts.
Thompson improved his game just after announcing that he is moving his campaign to Iowa for the remaining days before the Jan. 3 caucuses. He was light on his feet, dishing a quip one minute and then posturing as the serious man who wanted to give long thoughtful answers when the moderator tried to get 30-second ones. He refused to participate in hand-raising on a question on global warming, which paralleled his serious posture on entitlements. If he’d turned in this performance many months ago, when he should have started his campaign, he’d probably be higher than fourth in the polls.
In the end, the debate was inconclusive. The format bleached out conflict, so each candidate wound up giving snippets of their stump speeches. For Iowa voters, this may have been a disappointment. It was their last chance to watch a debate before the caucuses. The upside, though, is that after having to watch so many commercials, answer hundreds of phone calls, and endure appeals on their doorsteps, voters will be spared one last abuse: They won’t have to waste another evening listening to Alan Keyes.