Although Republicans have sparred in as many as ten debates before this one, few debates have proven as meaningful as this one. With actual election results coming in, the looming implications with regard to actual votes and actual delegates have raised the stakes for every candidate. Romney, who invested numerous resources in the early states, must win in New Hampshire after a stunning defeat in Iowa. McCain, having revived his campaign, has to repeat his 2000 win in New Hampshire to make the momentum last. Huckabee, surging from his win in Iowa, needs to show that he can his hold his own outside of states like Iowa and South Carolina.
And Giuliani, with his focus on the larger states later in the campaign, must make a strong showing so that the nomination has not been decided when the larger states vote. As for Thompson and Paul, the prospects do not look good, but McCain found himself in a similar situation only months ago. Everyone has an important reason to win, but not everyone can win. With that said, here are the top three performers in this debate.
1. Mitt Romney
Here’s the great irony. Romney has been slammed recently for relying on money and negative attack ads to propel his candidacy. Yet in the debate tonight, where money has no sway, Romney excelled in a way I have not seen before. On top of this, for all the fire he has received over his negative campaigning, Romney was attacked the most of all the candidates, with the worst barbs coming from McCain, who just said in Iowa that negative campaigns do not work. In spite of all of this, Romney not only deflected the attacks, staying on the issues, but presented his own philosophies and policies with a singular excellence.
His biggest victory came on immigration, where he fiercely sparred against his New Hampshire rival McCain in the most intense battle of the night. Romney’s constant press on McCain finally yielded one huge concession. After repeatedly asking McCain if his policy would send all illegal immigrants home, McCain replied, “Some of them are, some of them are not.” Romney then went on to show how the Z-visas McCain supported allowed illegal immigrants to stay in America indefinitely without going home. With that victory, Romney established a sharp contrast with McCain on an issue as huge as immigration, bringing back memories of the issue that originally stung McCain’s candidacy before his recent revival.
Endorsed by the National Review as a “full-spectrum conservative,” Romney lived up to that standard on various issues. On foreign policy and terrorism, Romney developed some good hard-power military policies like everybody else, but only he offered effective soft-power policies to reach out to moderate Muslims and empower them against terrorists. Additionally, he gave detailed answers with authoritative sources (he was the only candidate to talk about Bhutto’s assassination in Pakistan), using these details both to elaborate on his policies and refute attacks against them. This level of detail persisted throughout all his answers, including health care, where he gave a strong presentation of both his Massachusetts health care plan and free-market principles as well as his national plan and the principle of states’ rights. And in the debate between experience and change, with Obama capitalizing and winning on change, Romney presents an effective contrast, showing how his experience outside of Washington with both the Olympics and the state of Massachusetts has brought about not only the hope of change but actual change.
Romney probably received the sharpest barbs and one-liners of the night, but when it came down substantive discussion on the issues that goes beyond witty one-liners, Romney gave the best performance I have ever seen in his debates, building off of his victory today in the Wyoming caucus.
2. Fred Thompson
There are two Fred Thompsons: the one that had been heralded as the true conservative before he entered the race, and the one whose lack of effort on the campaign trail has been matched by a lack of support. The former showed up tonight. He opened up the debate with a clever shot at Huckabee, exploiting his weakness on foreign policy, and over the course of the debate, he continually inserted these negative attacks that were not personal or nasty, but clever and funny. However, he did not just rely on attacks and one-liners; he displayed the conservative approach that wooed the “Fredheads” to his side in the first place.
The free market, states’ rights, respect for the Constitution–Fred Thompson brilliantly advocated all three in an old-fashioned but popular approach. Especially on health care, he shows how costs can be driven down with competition and how a lack of competition, not other factors, has kept the prices high in the first place. The principles of limited government and the Constitution guide Thompson, and given a question about principles, he delivered a stunning oration about the Constitutional values that guide his views. He also augmented this with a strong performance on national security, developing a cautious yet aggressive approach, and on immigration, where he drove home the point that amnesty occurs whenever immigration laws reward illegal immigrants for their illegal behavior, fines or no fines. Displaying this combination of both sound principles and policies, Fred Thompson could have gone a lot farther in this campaign if he had demonstrated these credentials before, not after Iowa.
3. Ron Paul
Many emphatically love and support Paul, and many emphatically hate him. But loved or hated, viable or not, Ron Paul does a wonderful job of defending his views. He has a vast repository of knowledge on American history which he uses to defend his non-interventionist policies. He also channeled frustration on the cost of Iraq into frustration on issues like health care and inflation, benefitting his opposition to the Iraq War. Speaking of inflation, his discussion of both inflation and the sinking value of the dollar, an important issue whose effects permeate society in many negative way, presents a unique facet and advantage of Paul that many have neglected. And as the moderator Charlie Gibson pointed out, with all this discussion of flip-flopping, Ron Paul may have changed his affiliation from Libertarian to Republican, but he has not changed his position. This allows him to present a consistent, effective, Constitutional philosophy with a candor that no candidate can match.
Mike Wacker is The Sun’s Assistant Web Editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.