While the difference between Republicans and Democrats in their beliefs was not unexpected, I was surprised that they did not take off the gloves and go at it with each other like the Democrats did, especially with the Republicans’ greater diversity in opinion (particularly Ron Paul). Overall, McCain, Romney, and Giuliani all performed well, and no second-tier candidate had a performance strong enough to catch up to them (though I will give an honorable mention to Huckabee for his views on religion, which set the tone for all Republicans, and also his focus on respecting life not only for babies in the womb, but also for the neglected, abused elderly and the children in poverty in this world). Each first-tier candidate had some great moments, and no one ran away with this debate, but ultimately I have to give the victory to McCain.
Iraq definitely plays a significant role on the election, and McCain handled this issue well. On the issue of going to war, he gave a good case how the UN sanctions were slowly falling apart and how Saddam, given his prior record, could and would have gone after WMDs once the UN with its oil-for-food scandal eventually took the pressure off of him. His explanation for the war makes much more sense than Bush’s explanation.
While admitting to mismanagement in the war on Iraq, McCain also laid out a good case on why we need to stay the course and avoid the dire consequences of failure. He also laid out a great criticism of Hillary: Iraq is not Bush’s war as Hillary said, nor is Kosovo Clinton’s war; both are America’s war as a nation, and the nation has a huge stake in the outcome of Iraq, no matter what has happened up to this point.
In the second half of the debate, McCain really hammered all of this home with his best moment of the campaign. Receiving a question from a woman who lost family in Iraq, he gave her what he called “straight talk.” While giving a realistic picture of the war and how mistakes have created unnecessary deaths, the Vietnam veteran still showed how he wanted to achieve success to honor every lost life in Iraq, praising the new strategy and the new general in Iraq. Crafting a fine balance between reality and optimism, McCain drew an enormous round of applause from the audience.
At the beginning of the debate, McCain took a pounding on the issue of immigration. He received a lot of criticism of his bill, and generally his stance on immigration did not sit well with Republicans. He did make up a lot of ground there, however. He argued a good point on how he had to compromise to do something, and fighting while doing nothing amounts to de facto amnesty. Also, he gave a sensational answer that portrayed immigrants as our friends, not our enemies, towards the end of the debate.
On other issues like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and energy independence, McCain had some good answers, but he did not really differentiate himself very much from other candidates. But by handling Iraq superbly and holding his ground on immigration, McCain propelled himself to the top of the pack last night.
Romney did an especially good job of projecting his own personal character and integrity. After McCain took some huge shots on him at immigration before the debate, Romney called McCain his friend and refused to make the issue personal. He also had a dignified response to the Mormon question, calling it a fair question and giving an honest yet impressive answer about his faith.
On immigration, he had the best moment in the first half when he said the solution to immigration was to enforce the ’86 laws (which were supposed to solve the problems concerning immigration) which called for employment verification and border security, drawing huge applause. He also had a great criticism on how Z-visas can allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country for all their lives.
He had some great original ideas elsewhere. On the issue of Iran, he highlighted reaching out to moderate Muslims. While many candidates talked about energy independence and national security, only Romney specifically cited how our oil dependence benefits Chavez, Ahmadinejaid, and Putin. I also liked his use of the non-sequitur logical fallacy on the issue of Iraq (although it was hard to follow); had we known back then what we know today about Iraq, that would have probably meant Saddam was cooperating much more than he actually did.
He really faded in the second half of the debate, though. His answers seemed to go off in tangents frequently. He had a good point on optimism and hope for the future, but he struggled to articulately express his views and draw applause like he frequently did early on. Even on healthcare, a strong issue for Romney given his healthcare bill that passed in Massachusetts, he could have done a better job of highlighting all his good work there. While McCain and Giuliani gained ground, he made little headway, dropping him from the first spot below McCain and almost below Giuliani.
Giuliani displayed some strong credentials as a potential commander-of-chief on Iraq and terrorism, and also joined with McCain in eliciting some applause when answering the question for the woman who lost family in Iraq. To some extent, though, he displayed too much rhetoric and not enough argumentation. When he tried to connect Saddam to the war on terror, he could have used more hard evidence, and he could also have provided more explicit details on the consequences of failure in Iraq.
However, when Giuliani, a pro-choice candidate, received a question comparing his personal opposition to abortion to Pontius Pilate personally opposing Jesus’ crucifixion while washing his hands on the matter, the lightning that disrupted the stage — while humorous — highlighted a serious trouble for him. He never directly answered the question, dancing around the issue as usual. Being pro-choice won’t necessarily break his campaign, but he really needs to come up with a clear and direct answer to his views that would draw applause from an audience.
That being said, though, Giuliani performed well overall. He established some good, specific, criticism of McCain’s immigration bill, and he also had a good proposal for taking on an Apollo-like program to establish energy independence. On Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, he defused the problem quite well, even citing Colin Powell. However, given the strong performance of McCain and Romney, I do have put him at the bottom of the top three.