If you are a Republican presidential candidate, don't irritate Fox News. That was the first message from the Wednesday night debate hosted by the network. Fred Thompson didn't attend the New Hampshire forum, choosing instead to appear on NBC's Tonight Show. In what can only be seen as a delicious act of retribution, the Fox moderators started the evening with an open-ended question to the participating candidates about the former Tennessee senator. This saved the eight men on stage the trouble of finding the right moment to work in the quips about Thompson they'd prepared beforehand. Mike Huckabee compared him to country singer George Jones, who was called "No-Show George" for missing his concerts. McCain suggested the debate was past Thompson's bedtime, a reference to Thompson's supposed laziness, which almost all candidates touched on indirectly as they touted their hard work on the campaign trail.
Rudy Giuliani's opening jab was the most damaging, highlighting Thompson's lack of experience. "He's done a pretty good job of playing my part on Law & Order," said the former prosecutor. "I personally prefer the real thing. … You have three leading Democratic candidates, none of which have ever run a city, a state, or a business. America's at war. America's got some big problems. It's not the time for on-the-job training as an executive."
After the T-ball round, here's how the top candidates performed:
John McCain: If McCain revives his campaign, his debate performance will be the moment observers seize on as the start of the turnaround. After a terrible summer of staff defections, fund-raising woes, and plunging poll numbers, he declared the debate a "make or break" moment. It sounded like the kind of false drama dying campaigns try to create before doing something truly desperate and embarrassing. But McCain raised expectations and then met them. He was commanding and in control on issues from immigration to taxes to the troop surge in Iraq, which many Republicans believe has been a success. ("We're kicking ass," as Bush put it.) McCain took his opportunities to highlight his military and foreign-policy experience relative to his opponents—particularly Mitt Romney—without looking desperate. He was also praised several times by others on stage. Mike Huckabee went on so long about McCain's honor, it sounded like the generosity rivals show each other only when one of them is getting out of the race.
Rudy Giuliani: Perhaps in future debates, moderators can find an experience in the human condition that Rudy cannot use as a pretext to talk about an achievement from his tenure as mayor. Time and again Giuliani answered questions with data-laden examples of how he reduced crime or cut taxes that he said proved he was tested and ready. Though in past debates similar answers turned out to be inaccurate or puffed up, his concrete facts and details sound commanding and convey the idea that he's a hands-on manager. Plus the cramped format makes it almost impossible for his opponents to refute his assertions about shrinking the welfare rolls or managing the bureaucracy even if they wanted to. The downside: Enough already with the bragging.
A voter asked Giuliani about his fraught personal life, and he gave what may be his best answer to date. He appeared somewhat sympathetic (useful for a guy with a reputation as a bully) while making the case for why voters should focus on his achievements. "I am not running as the perfect candidate for president of the United States. I am running as a human being," he said, channeling John Hurt. "Any issues in my private life do not affect my public performance."
Mike Huckabee: In the first Fox debate, it was Rudy Giuliani who used Ron Paul as his foil. This time Mike Huckabee engaged in a back-and-forth with Paul over finishing the job in Iraq. It was a rare flare of substance and useful conflict on the question of what America owes the Iraqis. Paul—whom the stainless steel Romney might want to watch for pointers on how to display passion—made the case for withdrawal, arguing that the country should not continue to suffer for the mistakes of a neoconservative cabal in the Bush administration that launched the war. Huckabee, who conceded the mistakes in Iraq, made the case for continuing the fight by appealing to the country's sense of honor. "What we did in Iraq is we essentially broke it," he said, invoking Colin Powell's Pottery Barn rule. "It's our responsibility to try and fix it." Huckabee has been moving up in the polls. He's appealing and amusing and articulates the pro-life position better than perhaps any presidential candidate ever has. This exchange offered a chance for him to show GOP primary voters range—he could speak passionately about the central foreign-policy issue of the day. Since debates live on in the sound bites replayed afterward, the exchange with Paul is one Huckabee should probably post in the middle of his home page. (Paul probably should, too.)
Mitt Romney: No matter how well you do, when a civilian questioner rebukes you, it's a bad night. Romney was on his way to completing a competent if not distinguished performance when a father whose son is completing his second tour in Iraq clubbed him. "I don't think you fully understand how offended my wife and I were and probably the rest of the people who have sons, daughters, husbands, and wives serving in the war on terror to compare your sons' attempts to get you elected to my son's service in Iraq," he said, nervously. "I know you apologized a couple days later up there, a firestorm started. But it was wrong, sir, and you never should have said it."
Romney, who was already taking heat from McCain for not giving a full-throated support for the surge and whose Iraq answers sounded tentative and unwieldy, had trouble responding. He heaped praise on those who serve, but it sounded more like an act of damage control than a response to the father's clear emotion.