James Forsyth

The debate double-header

The debate double-header
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I’m sitting in the press filing centre at Saint Anselm College where the leading Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are about to hold back to back debates. The stakes are huge—this is Hillary Clinton’s last best chance to halt the Obama bandwagon before the primary on Tuesday. While on the Republican side, Mitt Romney can’t afford a bad showing. Worryingly for Romney, Ed Rollins, a key Huckabee aide, told the New York Times this morning: “We’re going to see if we can’t take Romney out,” Mr. Rollins said. “We like John. Nobody likes Romney.”

The first question is on the Bush foreign policy legacy. Mike Huckabee, who has criticised the “arrogant bunker mentality” of the Bush team, is first up and gives a carefully calibrated answer designed to distance himself from the missteps in Iraq but not the Bush doctrine per se. Rudy Giuliani calls for a bigger military and praises Bush for the decision to go on the offence against “Islamic terror.” McCain, interestingly, starts with some praise for Bush for the absence of any attacks since 9/11. McCain then stresses his prescience on Iraq. Ron Paul, predictably, launches a full frontal assault on the Bush doctrine and starts talking about blowback. Romney, sounding confident despite the pressure on him, emphasises the non-military aspects of the struggle against Islamic extremism. Giuliani goes after Paul for arguing that US foreign policy contributed to 9/11, saying that “our foreign policy is totally irrelevant.” Romney then takes his opportunity to school Ron Paul. Huckabee takes the opportunity to chide Romney for his previous statements on Iraq but then says “I’m not running for George W. Bush’s third term.” McCain, who must be frustrated that he’s not front and centre during this question, then gets praise from Romney for his advocacy of the surge. Then, the moment of the debate so far: Romney tells Huckabee not to characterise his position, Huckabee shoots back ‘which one?” Romney, who is struggling to overcome a reputation as a weather-vane, looks taken aback.

The next question is on the candidate’s bedrock principles. A series of bland, motherhood and apple pie statements follow as Romney and McCain refuse to take up the moderator’s invitation to go mano a mano.

Healthcare is the third topic up. Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts implemented a much-praised healthcare plan, gives a polished answer. However, he then comes under fire from Fred Thompson on the details of it. Romney looks rattled as another Republican goes after him. McCain has to be loving the way that Romney is taking fire from all sides.

McCain then gets a question on immigration, the Achilles heel of his campaign. He stresses securing the borders but supports the idea of their being an eventual path to citizenship and reminds people that these people are “God’s children.” Romney tries to draw a contrast stressing his new hard-line stance on the issue. Rudy chooses to emphasise his competence and ability to enforce the law but doesn’t back away from the idea of a path to citizenship. Then comes a ding-dong between McCain and Romney over Romney’s criticism of him. McCain tells Romney, “You can spend your entire fortune on these attack ads calling my plan amnesty and it still won’t be true.” He then tells Romney that he is not going to call up soldiers in Iraq to inform them that he’s deporting their grandmothers. Thompson then joins in the mass assault on Romney. Romney claims that the quote Thompson is using was wrong, McCain jokes that if you change position as often as Romney does you’re going to get misquoted from time to time. Giuliani then, sensibly points out that Ronald Reagan did do amnesty, and says that he’d be in one of “Mitt’s negative commercials.” By my count, every candidate has attacked Romney while the others—with the exception of the attacks on Ron Paul during the foreign policy section—are playing nice.

The moderator asks the candidates about how they would run against Barack Obama. McCain and Romney trade barbs but Huckabee steals the show with a clear, concise answer stressing the differences and similarities between him and Obama. Huckabee is turning in a strong performance, third place might not be beyond him here.

In a question about the price of oil, Thompson offers props to McCain again. Indeed, the frequency with which Thompson is taking on Romney and praising McCain makes one wonder if Thompson’s heart might not already be with McCain. Giuliani delivers a strong fact-filled answer.

The spin room afterwards sees the other campaign continue the attacks on Romney. How far Romney has lurched to the right is illustrated by the fact that Tom Tancredo, the most extreme person on immigration in the US Congress, is spinning for him on the issue. 

Written byJames Forsyth

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

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