With the elaborate stage set up and a fiber optic display of the American flag serving as the backdrop, it was easy to forget that hockey games were recently held in the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center, where the eight Republican presidential candidates gathered Wednesday night.
The local audience of more than 7,000 included hundreds of UNH students, the varied reactions reflected the mixed political opinions of New Hampshire Republicans. (The president of UNH, Mark Huddleston, flattered the home crowd before the debate began in proclaiming New Hampshire residents as some of the most politically astute people in the nation.)
Jeering was, by no means, scarce in this debate and the opportunity to attack opponents arose from the very beginning with the question from one of the panelists asking for thoughts about Fred Thompson’s late declaration of candidacy for president. Huckabee, Romney, and McCain took advantage of the opportunity to court New Hampshire voters in pointing out that being with New Hampshire residents was far more was exciting than appearing on Jay Leno. Whether or not the crowd believed them is another story.
Fred Thompson’s absence certainly had no effect on the amount of mention he received and the recognition he got from the audience. Giuliani was asked to chime in on Sen. Thompson’s sentiments that the Virginia Tech tragedy may have been mitigated if some of the students were permitted to carry guns. Giuliani reaffirmed his support of the Second Amendment while also noting that the key to cutting crime is “by focusing not on guns but on criminals.”
This discussion led to a question of Congressman Paul regarding the arming of airline pilots with weapons. As he spoke, one could feel the air beginning to chill in the room as Paul expressed his disdain for governmental bureaucracy and his view that the safety of flights should be handled by the airlines themselves.
It was crystal clear what the number one topic for this election is and what issue New Hampshire voters are most concerned with – Iraq and national security. While Giuliani made an effort to stress that it wasn’t his handling of September 11th alone that qualified him for handling national security issues, McCain led the rest of the candidates, with the exception of Congressman Paul, in supporting the conflict, creating a new strategy for winning, and setting up a feasible plan for gradual retreat. Giuliani was quick to point out, however that we cannot be successful in Iraq when the dominant question of the American public is, “What kind of timetable are we going to set for our retreat?”
The divide of the audience was quite evident during a sharp exchange between Congressman Paul, the self-proclaimed Republican anti-war candidate, and Gov. Huckabee, a supporter of a long-term strategy in Iraq. Because of the passion and tension brought on with this subject, one could cut the tension with a knife during the Huckabee-Paul exchange.
Congressman Paul has obviously taken some shots for his position and tonight was no exception, but it was quite interesting and somewhat surprising when Fox News’ Chris Wallace joined in and, after Congressman Paul spoke about troop withdrawal from Iraq, he sought clarification and said, “you’re basically saying that we should take our marching orders from Al Qaida?”
The discussion of “family values” was the shortest portion of the debate and a clear indication that the topics that dominated conservative conversation in the last two election cycles were taking a backseat for this election season – though when Sen. Brownback and Congressman Hunter were asked whether Sen. Larry Craig should resign over his recent situation, and both agreed that he should step down immediately.
Despite the fact that they are trailing in the polls, Brownback and Tancredo were not received well by the New Hampshire Republicans gathered at the UNH debate. For New Hampshire Republicans especially, national security and foreign policy are currently center stage, whether it be troop withdrawal from Iraq or intervention with Iran, and family values seem to be less important this cycle. And although Tancredo is a particularly strong proponent of border security, it seems that New Hampshire Republicans are not particularly moved by this issue either, and this is likely due to the incredibly small population of illegal immigrants in New Hampshire (less than 5,000 according to an INS study in 1990’s).
During the lengthy 25-minute discussion of illegal immigration, Sen. McCain acknowledged his trouble with the issue noting, “very seldom have I seen an issue that aroused this much passion with the American people,” indicating the difficulty of solving this issue and the various solutions offered by many of the candidates. McCain, however, also made it clear that he is not for amnesty and that he “commit [s] to securing the borders first.”
The only candidate who was willing to declare a sense certainty for the efficacy of his plan, however, was Duncan Hunter who, once again, strongly advocated the completion of the 854 mile border fence along the Southwestern border.
The gradual shift of conservatives was very clear, in that Congressman Paul’s support was rather high and his supporters showed up in force to the debate. While this says nothing about ability to win a primary, it should be noted that he received applause even from men and women around me who were wearing anti-Republican stickers and pins.
In terms of wit, conveyed mastery of the issues and reception by core voters, McCain was received well and he seemed to be the center of many conversations as people headed from the arena to their cars into the chilly New Hampshire night.