The 2008 Republican presidential primary debate season ended last night where it began last May: The Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Since May, seven candidates have dropped to the wayside, including the most recent casualty, Rudy Giuliani. Two hours before the debate, he endorsed John McCain.So only four men remained to debate. But the race for the nomination has really been narrowed to two contenders: John McCain and Mitt Romney. Romney scored a clear win in the debate battle, but will McCain's resolute nature and momentum from Florida ultimately win him the nomination? CNN's debate moderator, Anderson Cooper, announced at the outset there would be no rules for the debate. But one rule became clear: Ignore Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee in favor of a McCain-Romney rumble. The top two candidates obliged by trading blows on several issues: their records in office, the economy and Iraq. McCain assessed his own political career last night:
"And I unequivocally put my career and my political fortunes on the line and unequivocally said we're going to support this surgeMcCain's support for the surge certainly has served him well. His experience on foreign affairs has curried favor with Republicans who believe the assertion: "I don't need any on-the-job training" in defense of the country. Romney, however, objected strongly to McCain's recent attacks in Florida, in particular to the charge that Romney had called for timetables to exit Iraq. Romney labeled it a "dirty trick" that Ronald Reagan wouldn't condone, which was mildly ironic, as Romney has run the most negative campaign by far. The audience applauded Romney's efforts. In the end, the heated exchange proved McCain had twisted Romney's statement. But McCain salvaged some respect. He pointed out that Romney did not support President Bush on the surge in Iraq in 2006. Romney also bested McCain in the discussion about their records as officeholders. He listed McCain's nonconservative achievements: voting against drilling in Alaska's ANWR, voting against Bush's tax cuts, voting to place tighter restrictions on campaign contributions through McCain-Feingold, supporting immigration reform (some say amnesty) and the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade "tax" on carbon emissions. I could almost hear Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity cheering. McCain fired back that he was proud of his record of working across the aisle with Democrats. He continued by assailing Romney's record of raising taxes in Massachusetts, lagging job growth and passing big government health care. McCain topped it off by saying Romney's former lieutenant governor had endorsed him. Romney retorted with a surge of facts. Not only had McCain gotten the endorsement wrong, but also he had been endorsed by Romney's predecessor: former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, who was largely responsible for the job losses in Massachusetts. Moreover, McCain exaggerated the tax figures, which turned out to be modernization of fees for services. Romney strongly defended his health reform, since few politicians can claim progress in this regard. His plan added no new costs and made many people responsible for their own health care by mandating insurance. McCain's response to questions about how he'd fix the economy was almost comical. Of course, he alluded to his service to the country, not the economy:
in Iraq. We're not going to talk about timetables or anything else; we're going to talk about winning and what's necessary to win."
"Because I know how to lead. ... I led the largest squadron in the United States Navy. And I did it out of patriotism, not for profit. And I can hire lots of managers, but leadership is a quality that people look for."Romney defended businesspeople and shot back at McCain:
"You don't do that as a manager; you do that as a leader. We shouldn't demean the people who are starting up small businesses, or middle-sized businesses, or people who run volunteer organizations. They're leaders. You can't go out and hire managers to run these things. These are people who are leading our economy. They help lift our country."Romney proved himself effective in last night's debate. He came prepared to discuss issues and to make key distinctions between himself and McCain. He scored a definitive win, particularly on his core issue of the economy. But the question remains whether voters are listening closely. Exit polls from Florida gave McCain the nod for experience with the economy, despite his lack of private-sector experience. Those polls also showed that voters who are upset with Bush favored McCain almost three to one. Those same upset Republican voters happen to live in big states like California, Illinois, New York and New Jersey at stake on Super Tuesday. That's a bad sign for Romney, and the winning combination for McCain.