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The Peaceful Debate: Republicans Face Off in Florida

The stage was set for a Rumble in Raton Thursday night, but Boca Raton resident Rand Simberg writes that at the GOP debate "there seemed to have been a mutual non-aggression pact declared among all the candidates on the stage." Meanwhile, South Floridian Patrick Cox reports that "it was not just civil and generally respectful, it was a show of solidarity in which even Ron Paul enjoyed none of the personal challenges aimed at him the past."

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January 24, 2008 - 7:57 pm

A Rumble in Raton?

by Rand Simberg

There were only five debaters on stage tonight in Boca Raton, with the regrettable departure of Fred Thompson. The press, after having to cover Des Moines and Manchester in January, and a cold rainy/snowy election last Saturday had a great time here pre-debate, enjoying seventy-degree weather on the beach, and hobnobbing with the yachters and wealthy golfers who were contributing to the campaigns at the high-end hotels and venues.

Of course, some might think the name of the locale (Spanish for “Rat Mouth,” named after the shape of the small inlet here, rather than any local denizens) an amusingly appropriate one for a presidential debate. But the real point of the location is that this, in addition to the wealth, is a very different part of Florida than Orlando, where the last Florida debate took place. It is right on the border between Broward and Palm Beach Counties, the heart of the notorious “hanging chad” country from the controversial 2000 election, in which many were imagined by some to have mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan over Al Gore. And while Florida is conventionally considered part of the south, this particular part of Florida is really the southernmost, sixth borough of New York City, with culture and politics to match. Up in Orlando and points north (which is really almost southern Georgia), they say that from down here, “you have to go nawth to get south.”

Does it matter?

Well, the whole state is in play, winner take all, and the whole state (as well as the nation at large) will be listening, so perhaps not. But it’s an interesting reminder of the nature of the politics here, and the effect it will have on the race and particular candidates within it. It means that, at least here, a southern candidate, of which Huckabee is the only one remaining with Thompson’s denoument this week, has no particular advantage. And Rudy Giuliani, now trailing in the polls both here and nationally, has a strength and a weakness in southeast Florida, with its huge amount of votes. The strength is that people here, many of whom are from New York and New Jersey, know him well. His weakness is the same.

The two perceived leaders in the race, John McCain and Mitt Romney, have no particular strengths here, other than the fact that Romney has lots of money. But in this media market, only the second (after Michigan, which he won) with a huge metro area where campaign ads can help, money can mean a lot. He seems to be surging, apparently aided as well by refugees from the conservative Thompson’s abandoned campaign. Maverick McCain, though widely perceived to be the front-runner now, didn’t seem to get any bounce out of his win in South Carolina. He isn’t helped any by the fact that this is the first time that he’ll have to win without the votes of non-Republicans (a feat he’s been unable to achieve so far in either his last run eight years ago, or this time), because the state is a closed primary.

Thus was the stage set for tonight’s Rumble in Raton (amusingly, and no doubt annoyingly to residents, mispronounced by everyone at MSNBC, from Brian Williams to Chris Matthews, like “baton,” rather than properly with a long “o”).

The debate opened with what seems to have now become the major issue in the campaign, with Iraq calmed down and mostly out of the news–the economy. It was a question seemingly tailor made for successful businessman and governor Mitt Romney, who has been making it part of his stump speech for weeks now, with talk of more rapid depreciation, reduced taxes, and increased business incentives. But Rudy Giuliani had some soaring speech on the subject as well, with his own words to bring comfort to corporate suites:

If America overtaxes, if America overspends, if America overregulates, if America oversues, then business and jobs and money go elsewhere, and we’re doing all four of those things…. Just how much business are we running out of the United States because of the excesses of Sarbanes-Oxley?

He also put up a good defense for free trade and engagement with China. Still, overall, Romney came off the best here, despite McCain’s determination to establish his conservative bona fides as well with talk of his advisors such as Martin Feldstein and Jack Kemp, with his talk-radio nemesis Rush Limbaugh living just a short drive north. This was to become a theme on other topics as the discussion wore on.

Senator McCain came more into his own when the subject turned to national defense. He justifiably bristled at a complex question about a “broken military” and an economy that “couldn’t sustain the war,” responding that he didn’t know any military leaders who believed that, and then went after Hillary Clinton for “waving the white flag of surrender,” sure to be red-meat words to primary voters. None of the candidates, with the predictable exception of Congressman Paul, would call the removal of Saddam Hussein a mistake, and at least based on their words, this probably won’t be a discriminator among them. In response to a demand to defend the war, Giuliani probably handled it the best, at least politically, with another attack on Senator Clinton, saying that he was for the war when it was popular, and for it when it was unpopular, and (unlike her) hadn’t let his opinions be based on the polls.

Unlike previous debates, there seemed to have been a mutual non-aggression pact declared among all the candidates on the stage. There were very few attacks of other mens’ positions–the focus seemed to be on declaring their own, and letting the listeners make a contrast, if any. The only time there was any give and take in that regard was in a portion of the debate structured to do exactly that, when each candidate was required to ask a question of another. The most blood in this exchange seemed to me to have been drawn when Huckabee asked Romney to reconcile his support of the “assault weapons” ban with his declaration of support for an individual right to bear arms. Romney scored better, though, in a response as to how he would run against both Hillary and Bill Clinton, with a quip about how bad it made him feel to “think about Bill Clinton sitting in the White House with nothing to do.”

Florida only came up a few times. Huckabee managed to interject it into the discussion on the economy, proposing to add two lanes to I-95 (which passes a couple miles from the debate venue) “from Bangor to Miami,” to save all the soccer moms from sitting in traffic. Tim Russert had three questions on the subject.

The first was on the plan for a National Catastrophic Fund to spread the risk of bad weather across state lines, a very important issue to hurricane-prone Floridians with high insurance. McCain, as with ethanol in Iowa, didn’t pander, and said that he thought that the problem could be solved by getting together governors, insurance companies and other stakeholders, rather than a new federal bureaucracy. Romney tried to have it both ways, saying that he agreed with the plan, while also saying that he didn’t think that Iowans should subsidize rich beach property owners in Florida, without explaining how he would square that particular circle.

Russert followed up with a tendentious question about global warming, and why the candidates wouldn’t support cap and trade to save the planet and keep Florida from getting inundated. While Giuliani pointed out that caps would hurt America’s economy and advantage those not in the system like China, and that we needed nuclear and new technologies for energy independence, this was the only time when McCain got off his newfound conservative religion. He both defended cap and trade, and declared global warming a crisis that we couldn’t leave to our children. Most absurdly, he stated that many conservatives agreed with him. He presumably hangs out with much different conservatives than most people do. The final Florida question was to Giuliani, on why Cubans should get “dry foot” privileges when Mexicans weren’t granted green cards, to which he gave the standard response that they were fleeing political oppression, not simply seeking work.

Overall, I think that any Republican listening to this debate could be comfortable with any of the front runners, even Huckabee, if they only listened to this debate. The problem arises when they are informed of the candidates’ past statements, particularly McCain and Huckabee, though to a degree Romney as well, and whether they can believe them now. But because they all suffer from this to a degree, with the true “straight talker,” Fred Thompson exiting the race, it’s not clear that there were any winners or losers tonight. That said, I think that Romney won, because he was perceived to be leading coming in, and did nothing to damage himself. His new campaign theme of running against Washington will be effective against McCain, if not Giuliani and Huckabee, but unless Giuliani can turn his fortunes around with this event, he seems to be fading, and Huckabee did nothing tonight that will break him out of the evangelical ghetto in which he has been stuck since he entered the race. If Rudy does pull it out, he may want to thank the New York Times for the endorsement of his rival John McCain and NBC for being foolish enough to make a point of it in the debate. A negative endorsement from the Gray Lady is one of the greatest gifts a Republican candidate can ask for, particularly among New Yorkers. Many will think it a two-man race after tonight but, of course, many have been wrong in this election season and, like last fall’s college football season, may continue to be.

Rand Simberg blogs at Transterrestrial Musings.

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No Brawl in Boca

by Patrick Cox

The GOP debate in Boca Raton, Florida was completely unlike the Democrats’ last brawl. It was not just civil and generally respectful, it was a show of solidarity in which even Ron Paul enjoyed none of the personal challenges aimed at him the past. In alphabetical order, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are obviously hitting their stride.

The two moderators, Tim Russert and Brian Williams were not so civil, of course. Their combative questions, I think, helped the candidates to position themselves as running against the status quo and the mainstream media instead of each other. This was particularly evident in the later questions when both Giuliani and Romney suffered relatively vicious quotes by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. When asked to defend themselves, neither bothered, pointing out the ideological differences that motivated the media attacks. McCain even came to Giuliani’s defense, citing his personal admiration for the job he did as Mayor of New York.

I was impressed by the performance of all five candidates’ ability to answer direct questions but take the discussion further to include yet unmentioned conservative talking points. They used every opportunity to reinforce the need for tax and spending cuts, often blaming the GOP for losing its way. All but Paul reiterated the need to win in Iraq, taking the Democrats to task consistently for changing their position on the war.

As a Floridian, I was watching the crowd — presumably drawn mostly from Boca Raton and surrounding Palm Beach County. There was a time when migrating New Yorkers called Miami the “sixth borough.” No mas. Today, the migration from the Northeast is aimed at Palm Beach County, farther up the coast where most of the good deli is. Midwesterners tend to move to the other coast. Boca Raton, the scene of tonight’s debate, is the heart of the new sixth borough.

Lots of people, by the way, just call it Boca. If you are going to use the full name, the O in Raton is long as in oh. Brian William’s pronunciation of Raton as ra-tawn is comparable to pronouncing Oregon ori-gawn — a dead giveaway you’re a foreigner.

Boca’s not the friendliest place in Florida for Republicans. That would be up north in the panhandle, which is part of the South, or down south which is part of el norte. Latins in South Florida tend to vote conservative because they’ve seen left-wing dictators up close, and this includes not only Cubans but Venezuelans, Columbians and others.

The Jewish population in Boca, having missed the memos about their undue influence over the GOP and its neocon minions, keep doing their best to elect Democrats. This year, of course, registered Democrats have no voice in the presidential nomination process; as the same Democratic party that claimed hanging chads in Palm Beach County were an abrogation of democracy has officially nullified Florida’s Democratic primary vote. It doesn’t seem to be an issue, however.

Regardless, if any Republican had a home field advantage in heavily Democratic Boca, it should have been New Yorker Rudy Giuliani, and I was curious to gauge crowd response. Joe Lieberman made a series of appearances on behalf of his friend John McCain last week but Norm Coleman, one of the two sole GOP Jewish senators, countered with a swing down through Boca to defend Giuliani.

It was difficult to tell what the audience was thinking, though, as they were warned not to applaud or respond vocally to the candidates. We found this out after several outbreaks of applause. The first was in response to Romney’s disgust over Democratic candidates’ efforts to take credit for the success of the surge. The second, tellingly, was in response to Russert’s reference to a poll stating that most Americans did not believe the Iraq invasion was worth the “blood and treasure.” It was impossible to tell if it came from Paul supporters or Democrats. Giuliani trumped the discussion by reminding viewers that even Democrats were for the war when the polls were, and promised not to base his policies on poll results.

Efforts to stir the pot generally failed. McCain rejected an alleged quote from him about not understanding economic matters as simply counterfeit — and used the opportunity to put forth his experience and an impressive list of advisors. Huckabee refused to take Russert’s offer to jump on Romney’s tax record, turning the attention to the bigger economic questions

When Romney was invited to criticize McCain and Giuliani’s fiscal records, he made perhaps the strongest jab at an opponent, which wasn’t very strong. After saying that everyone on stage wants see taxes and spending brought down, he did criticize McCain for voting against the Bush tax cuts initially — which McCain later explained as an effort to force spending cuts.

Paul’s highpoint was, I think, being able to point out that he was one of only three votes against Sarbanes-Oxley, which Giuliani explained was killing New York City’s position as world financial center. Giuliani answered a question about the undesirability of foreign investments in financial institutions, provoked by sub-prime mortgage losses, by asking questioner Brian Williams if he remembered when the Japanese purchase of his office building meant national disaster. He pointed out then that trade between nations builds ties and that the Japanese are one of our strongest allies now.

Ron Paul supporters broke the no-clap rule again when he reiterated that the war was “a very bad idea” and not worth the price paid. Huckabee reminded the audience that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction did not mean there weren’t any.

At the end of the first of three breaks, Russert’s microphone was apparently left on and you could hear him disclaiming, “… did you see this?” and “unbelievable.”

During the second third of the debate, candidates asked candidates questions, something they admitted discussing among themselves ahead of time. Rather than scrap, they simply subverted the process to expound on their own themes. Giuliani took the opportunity to condemn the harm done by Bill Clinton’s “peace dividend,” when he cut military spending thirty percent. “We’ve never undone that harm,” he said.

McCain asked Huckabee the least-informed question of the evening, regarding the Fair Tax’s effect on lower income individuals. Huckabee explained well the “prebate” aspect of the sale tax that assures that only spending beyond a certain lower limit is taxed. He also got in a line about doing away with the underground economy through sales taxes, charging even drug dealers and pimps — “non-Republicans.”

Romney pulled a laugh when asked about facing a Clinton candidacy. He said he couldn’t wait and invoked the image of having Bill back in the White House with nothing to do. The audience got the joke but an easily offended Russert demanded, “What does that mean?”

Romney brushed it off and dealt with Hillary’s policies. Russert followed up with a veiled accusation about the fairness of Romney using his own money to buy television ads, and asked him repeatedly to say how much he had spent. Romeny refused to say. He was also asked about polls saying that 44 percent of respondents’ say his Mormonism is an issue. He answered that he didn’t believe it because it is essentially un-American position.

Asked a question by a local correspondent about running ads in Spanish, Giuliani answered that he believes citizens should be able to speak English but multilingualism is “great for America.” Giuliani also defended well the special treatment for Cuban √©migr√©s by saying that anybody who can prove political persecution may apply for special status, but in the land of Fidel Castro, the longest lasting dictator in modern history, it is assumed.

More laughs came when Huckabee pretended that he didn’t disagree with his supporter Chuck Norris’s concern about McCain’s age because he was standing next to him when Norris made the comment. He smiled and talked vaguely about being kicked in the side of the head. McCain did even better when he said that, since Sylvester Stallone was endorsing him, “I’m sending him to take care of Chuck Norris.”

It was not a bad night as far as debates go.

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