The GOP debate Wednesday in New Hampshire kicked off with a question that established an aggressive tone for the rest of the evening: Where's Fred Thompson?
The fifth debate sponsored by the New Hampshire State Republican Party and Fox News was by far the liveliest yet. Fox News looked for every hot button and pushed them fast and furiously.
The opening push was aimed at the candidate not present: Thompson. The lumbering Tennessee politico/actor chose to skip the debate to announce his candidacy on NBC's
Tonight Show With Jay Leno
, but that didn't stop his fellow candidates from ripping into him. Indeed, Fox, apparently miffed at being upstaged, dangled the Thompson candidacy before them like a bagful of kittens before a pit bull. "Maybe we're up past his bedtime," sniped Sen. John McCain.
It seems Fox News read about Mitt Romney
skewering Rudy Giuliani on immigration. Chris Wallace asked Giuliani about his sanctuary policy, and Giuliani was prepared. He dodged the sanctuary issue, but he did point out that the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to respond to law enforcement requests when he was mayor. What could Giuliani do but create policies to deal with a problem he didn't invent that was perpetuated by the federal government?
Giuliani and the rest of the field rehashed territory about border security. Fox News put some new twists on immigration and asked former Gov. Mike Huckabee about a comment he made regarding racism and immigration.
Huckabee responded well. He said that clearly people are frustrated over the government's lack of action but that that doesn't call for a mean-spirited attack on people who simply want to enjoy the life and liberty offered in America. I like his use of "mean-spirited" vs. parroting the term "racist."
Fox News then segued into family-values territory by asking whether Sen. Larry Craig (R., Idaho) should resign following his guilty plea for an incident in a Minneapolis bathroom. They all agreed he should resign.
The debate moved on to more controversial topics. Fox News continued to lead with questions where one candidate attacked another. The moderator brought up McCain's recent statement that Giuliani being mayor of New York City on 9/11 didn't make him a foreign policy expert. McCain didn't follow up on the attack but did make it clear he had military experience and that Giuliani and Romney do not.
Giuliani chose to dodge the remark. He responded that he was running on his record as mayor and how he turned around a city in dire straits. I guess the bull market on Wall Street had nothing to do with that. But there was definitely no mention of what being mayor has to do with foreign affairs.
You can't mention foreign affairs without the debate turning to Iraq. The Fox News mediator asked a good question that never got answered: "The National Intelligence Estimate says even if the surge works, sectarian violence will continue and will not lead to an environment suitable for political conciliation. How long should we then stay in Iraq?
The majority of the respondents gave answers amounting to "as long as it takes, we have to win with honor" with two exceptions: Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Romney in recent days has seemed to favor reducing troops if the surge appears to be working. He didn't say anything President Bush or the Department of Defense hasn't already said. But it seemed like Fox News tried to trap Romney into saying he supported a deadline for troops to come home. Romney managed to avoid the trap.
Paul, however, happily stepped into Fox's trap. Paul remains the only antiwar candidate and doesn't mind saying the war is unconstitutional. He thinks the war was a mistake. Why continue a mistake when the cost of the war is high in both American lives and money? he asks. He appears to be the only GOP candidate who's aware that Iraq and 9/11 aren't connected.
Paul also seems to be the only candidate who opposes Bush's usurpation of power. He appears to be the only one familiar with concepts in the Constitution like habeas corpus or civil rights. I thought Mitt Romney didn't help himself when he said that the most important "civil liberty the government can protect is the right to keep us alive." The founding fathers might frown on a life without civil liberties.
The second-to-last gotcha question had to do with a favorite topic of Republicans: cutting taxes. Giuliani and McCain are the only two candidates not to sign the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes. McCain fired back that he had a record of voting for lower taxes and voted against lower taxes in 2001 because of a failure to control spending. History works in McCain's favor, but I think Giuliani's pat response that he cut taxes 23 times in New York plays better to a crowd.
The final question involved a hypothetical situation: If Iran continued to develop nuclear weapons, refused to cooperate with U.N. nuclear inspectors, continued to arm Iraqi insurgents and threatened Israel, what would the candidates do as president? It was as if Fox News was beating the drum to invade Iran next. Not surprisingly, the candidates thought a nuclear Iran was a bad idea.
Fox News got what it tried so hard for -- a debate filled with action. But who won?
Giuliani defended himself and did nothing to hurt his front-runner status. Mike Huckabee gave several nice answers and continued his momentum. Ron Paul did well -- but only if you agree with his antiwar position. I'd call these three winners. But Romney, McCain and the rest of the field failed to make a mark.