Debate: The Candidates Arrange a Play Date

The candidates get to ask each other the questions—how cute. Yet not even Q&A sessions can spruce up this snoozer of a debate. Here’s who asked whom what, and why:

Romney asks Giuliani about China: Look how far we’ve come since autumn, when Romney and Giuliani were at each other’s throats. What’s more important here is that Romney gave Giuliani a charity question rather than talking to McCain, which was a gutsy move because of its timidness. Romney had the chance to set the tone for the next five days by ribbing McCain on immigration, fiscal policy, or a lack of executive experience. But instead, Romney decided to trust the polls and shy away from his mean-guy image. Considering he didn’t do that in Iowa or New Hampshire and ended up losing, it might be a good move.

McCain asks Huckabee about the fair tax: This is a strange choice. McCain could have asked Mitt about his flip-flopping (which he doesn’t hesitate to do in a new Web ad ), but instead he turns to Huckabee and makes him seem like an economic pariah. A fine gesture, but McCain isn’t after Huck’s supporters, and Huck’s supporters don’t want McCain as a second choice. His question should have been directed at Romney to chip away at his maybe-lead in the polls .

Paul asks McCain about the economy: If Paul was determined to ask McCain a question, why not ask him about the war in Iraq? Considering they are as far apart on this issue as Iraq and America are on the globe, it seemed strange to fall back on the economy.

Huck asks Romney about gun control: Finally, somebody puts the press on another candidate. Huck claims Romney isn’t consistent about his support for an assault-weapons ban, and Romney answers smoothly. He leans on President Bush’s own support of the ban to bolster his support of it and wiggles his way out of another potential flip-flop trap.

Giuliani asks Romney and McCain about the national catastrophe fund: Giuliani, realizing he’s screwed unless he goes on the offensive, resorts to his bread-and-butter issue in Florida: hurricane defense. Giuliani has been advocating a national catastrophe fund that Floridians favor because it helps with hurricanes but that none of the other candidates likes because, as Romney put it, Iowans shouldn’t have to subsidize insurance efforts in Florida. Giuliani gets points for making sure Florida residents know that he’s the only guy who likes the fund, but looks like a bit of a tax-and-spender to a national audience that doesn’t care about hurricane insurance. It’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make since at this point he’s essentially running to be Florida’s governor (like Romney ran to be Michigan’s governor, Huck Iowa’s governor, and McCain ran to be New Hampshire’s senator).

Despite the brief glimpse into the candidates’ strategies, this debate quirk fell flat. There was no dialogue or back-and-forth, which meant this was a glorified Q&A. At this point, five days before Florida, we don’t need to baby the candidates with time limits and one-question, one-answer rules. They’re adults; it’s time to treat them as such.