James Forsyth

<strong>The Republicans debate</strong>

<strong>The Republicans debate</strong>
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Tonight, the Republican presidential contenders—minus Ron Paul and Duncan Hunter—hold another televised debate here in New Hampshire. Last night, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani all piled on to Mitt Romney. In the spin room afterwards, their surrogates continued to unload on the former Massachusetts governor and so the big question tonight is whether Romney will face another sustained assault. At the Huckabee event today it was noticeable that he was still, even if not mentioned by name, the major target of Huckabee’s criticisms with Huckabee making cracks about Romney’s hunting bona fides and the amount of his own money that he is pouring into his campaign. While on Fox News Sunday, Huckabee talked about the sense of “brotherhood” that existed between him and McCain because of the “negative ads” that Romney has run against both of them. I’ll be live blogging so check back for updates throughout the debate.

The first question is on tax cuts and Romney takes up the moderator’s invitation to critique McCain and Huckabee’s record on the issue. McCain responds by stressing that he believes in tax cuts but they have to be matched by spending cuts. Romney then rattles off his record as governor of Massachusetts on both spending and taxes. Huckabee and Romney then get into it over whether Huckabee was a tax raising governor and Romney’s purity on the issue. It’s clear that Huckabee really doesn’t like Romney but also that after last night Romney is determined to stay on the front foot. Giuliani endorses supply side tax cuts. Thompson, who clearly has contempt for this whole circus, lays out his social security reform programme. Romney, clearly determined to dominate this debate, chides Thompson for being politically naive. Overall, Romney is coming out of the gate strong but is setting himself up against the other competitors—it’s a risky strategy but with his campaign in trouble he has to roll the dice.

Next up is the economy and Huckabee and Romney go at it again over the whole populism question. Giuliani turns the question round to talk about how he brought people out of poverty in New York. His New York record is impressive but his failure to talk about anything else can make him look small.

The debate then moves onto which Republican can best bring about change. McCain talks about the change in strategy in Iraq that he brought aback but his answer needed to be crisper. Romney, who is beginning to make up for last night’s car crash, strongly pitches his outsider creds. McCain adroitly brings the debate back to national security and wins the exchange on a subject where the Romney campaign were hoping to—and needed—to score.

Romney is then questioned about his statement that the president doesn’t need foreign policy experience. He pivots to talk about leadership and again emphasises his ability to get results, it is a similar strategy to the one that Bush adopted in 2000 after his New Hampshire defeat when he branded himself as a reformer with result. McCain emphasises his impressive national security creds but shies away from taking any harsh shots at Romney. Huckabee is pressed on whether he really understands foreign policy. He comes back with a strong answer which should reassure some voters worried about that. Interestingly, Huckabee also gets McCain’s back over some criticism of him that Romney had made, the “brotherhood” strikes back. Giuliani talks about the foreign policy aspects of the New York mayoralty. Thompson goes after both Huckabee and Romney. McCain rounds off the segment by stressing his military and POW experience. A slight verbal fumble, only slightly reduces the power of an answer that leaves the others on stage looking rather small.

Up comes immigration, an issue that is probably the biggest obstacle to McCain winning the nomination. McCain is clearly tired of the whole issue and produces his now standard answer on the topic which by talking about how he doesn’t want to deport the mothers of those serving in Iraq probably appeases all but the most fervent anti-immigration advocates. He’s helped by the fact that Fox News helpfully puts a quote from Romney which sounds favourable to the McCain approach on the screen. Romney and Huckabee then go at it again. Romney, burned last night, is on aggressive form tonight.        

The last section of the debate starts with the tone of the campaign. Huckabee, who is not having a good night, gets a little mixed up in his answer and ends up sounding too sorry for himself. The other news is that McCain rejects the idea of standing for only one term—with Huckabee coming to his aid on the age question; McCain will be 72 come election day. In the final question, McCain—who was the last to answer—praised New Hampshire for its role in the process.

My instant reaction is that it was a good night for Romney and one where Huckabee failed to capitalise on his recent advances. Looking at the latest poll which has Obama up 13 over Clinton and McCain leading Romney by four, one thinks that McCain would feel better if Clinton managed to land a glove or two on Obama and push some independents back towards him. 

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is Political Editor of the Spectator. He is also a columnist in The Sun.

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