No one got teary-eyed at the Republican debate in South Carolina Thursday night, but Fred Thompson did try to make Mike Huckabee cry. Early in the 90-minute event, Thompson laid out a bill of complaints about Huckabee's heresies on tax cuts, immigration, and foreign policy. He went after him several more times during the night accusing Huckabee of political expediency and cluelessness about the Pakistani military. The governor didn't represent "the model of the Reagan coalition," said Thompson, but the "model of the Democratic Party." That crack may seem a little weak on the page, but given that Thompson normally proceeds like cold syrup, his consistently aggressive posture was as striking as if he'd broken out into jumping jacks.
In October, Thompson topped South Carolina polls, but now after a meandering campaign, he's a distant fourth. He has declared he's "all in" for the South Carolina primary, betting his entire candidacy on a strong finish. The showy boast from the candidate who eschews meaningless political gimmicks is similar to the ones he made in Iowa before placing a distant third in the caucus.
Thompson's old friend John McCain is battling Huckabee for first in South Carolina, which made me think maybe McCain had promised Thompson a job as attorney general in his future administration if he would repeatedly dig into Huckabee. McCain can't do the dirty work himself because Huckabee has called him a hero too many times. But then Thompson criticized McCain's position on citizenship for illegal aliens, which he probably wouldn't have done if the two had a secret deal.
Thompson's new spirit seemed to work with at least one group. Undecided voters in a focus group put together by Fox News pollster Frank Luntz overwhelmingly thought he had won the night. This is a dubious honor though. Romney handily won a similar Luntz focus group in New Hampshire after the last debate, as did Barack Obama.
Thompson was the only candidate trying to force the action in the last debate before the primary. Though the GOP race is up in the air with at least four different plausible outcomes, no other candidate felt they needed to stir themselves beyond their talking points. There were no great disagreements among the viable candidates on the benefit of tax cuts, staying vigilant against Iran, or restraining spending. The debate was also slowed down by a compulsory 15 minutes of Ronald Reagan worship, which never produces very much insight. It not only makes the candidates appear stuck in the past but highlights how little anybody wants to talk about the current two-term Republican president. Karl Rove should devote his next column to calling for an end to these obsessive Reagan devotionals.
The lack of action probably helped McCain the most. Though he saw his chances for the 2000 nomination dashed in South Carolina, he now leads some polls there. This was the last debate before next week's vote, and very little of it covered immigration, his weakest issue with the South Carolina crowd. Instead, McCain got to remind voters repeatedly that he was right about the troop surge in Iraq. The debate was held on the one-year anniversary of Bush's announcement of the troop buildup, but McCain hardly needs the prompting to remind voters that he was calling for the change in strategy long before Bush implemented it. When asked how a Republican could run in a general election when so many people in America oppose the war, McCain turned the question on its head, asking how Democrats could continue to deny the success of the troop surge. The GOP audience loved it.
Mitt Romney did nothing to scuff up McCain, which he presumably needs to do if he's going to beat him in the Michigan primary next week—something Romney must do to keep his campaign from going completely over a cliff. They did engage in a brief disagreement over the nature of job losses. McCain said he was being straight with voters when he said changing business patterns meant some jobs would not be coming back. Romney, whose success in the corporate world came in part by recognizing which jobs were obsolete and which businesses could be streamlined, nevertheless took the position that as president, he would fight the consequences of a free market and protect every job. Romney's most well-received answer of the evening came when he said that illegal immigrants should "go home and get in line with everybody else." Unfortunately for Romney, the answer was in the 85th minute of the debate, by which time I'm guessing even some of the members in the Frank Luntz focus group were asleep.
Gov. Huckabee didn't seem too undone by Thompson's attacks. He defended his record and stayed lighthearted and folksy, except when talking about sending some Iranians to the gates of hell, which made him seem like he was trying a little too hard. His truth-telling about the middle-class squeeze set him above the others by actually appealing to old-fashioned Reagan Democrats, a group the other candidates just talk about wanting to reach out to.
Huckabee returned to talking about the sanctity of life and marriage in a way that he hadn't in New Hampshire, where there are fewer social conservatives. He also deftly handled the compulsory trick religious question he tends to get. He was asked whether he endorses a religious pronouncement about wives being submissive to their husbands and whether doing so might cost him the female vote. He said Scripture requires husbands and wives to show submission to each other, an answer as politically pitch perfect as the one he gave about the literal interpretation of the Bible in a previous debate. He also took the opportunity to stoutly defend his Christianity, which drew loud applause. In a state full of evangelical voters, Huckabee's declaration of faith was probably a better rebuttal to Fred Thompson's assault than anything else he said.