Mitt and Mac Trade Barbs in California GOP Debate
8:58 pm PST -- Wrap-up
California is known for its faults - seismic bad boys called fault lines, that is - and a new rupture in the earth was discovered on Wednesday night under the scenic Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
The fault wasn't that deep, and was pretty wee as far as length, too. In fact, the fault, dubbed the Frontrunner Divide, ran exactly between the chairs of John McCain and Mitt Romney. And at the onset of the pre-Super Tuesday debate, this previously undiscovered fault ruptured with at least a magnitude 8.0 (or is it '08?).
Backdropped by Air Force One, and with the Kindergarten Cop himself eyeing the squabble from the front seat, all that remained to be done between Mac and Mitt was hair pulling (advantage: McCain) and pimp-slapping. The evening began with the issue that was, for a time, propelling a resurgence by Romney in Florida: the economy. CNN's Anderson Cooper, who proved quite capable of reining in the debate while allowing us to still be entertained by full-scale warfare, asked if Americans were better off than they were eight years ago. When Romney insisted on talking about his gubernatorial record, Cooper asked, "Are you running for governor or president?" (This scored the first of many cackle points from the press corps.)
"I think you could argue that overall Americans are better off," McCain said, adding that there are tough times ahead and "Americans are uncertain." Mike Huckabee, in one of the questions he actually got to answer, blamed a Congress that "sits on its hands" for the current economic conundrum while launching his general role for the evening: the populist to replace departed poseur populist John Edwards. Ron Paul launched his platform that there are fewer than seven degrees of separation between any issue and antiwar rhetoric.
Then came the "I'm more conservative than thou" debate, the first of many questions that intentionally pitted McCain and Romney at each other's throats. "Those views are outside the mainstream of conservative thought," Romney said after rattling off Anwar drilling, tax cuts, McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, McCain-Lieberman, etc. Then, in the first of the evening's full-body slams, Romney dumped on McCain for getting the endorsement of the New York Times. McCain fired back that he got the endorsements of Romney's hometown papers (the Boston Globe and Boston Herald), adding, "Let me guarantee you that the Arizona Republic will be endorsing me, my friend." (The Republic did endorse their hometown senator on Sunday.)
All was not about Mac and Mitt - er, in theory, at least. Huckabee was asked if, as Rush Limbaugh has suggested, his election would spell the fiery destruction of the Republican Party. "On this, he's very wrong," he said, prefacing that with his Rush fan club statement and later adding that Limbaugh had previously praised his "tax me more fund." In the middle of that response, though, he chided Cooper for neglecting his seat at the far end of the stage. "This isn't a two-man race," Huckabee said.
On the topic of the environment, McCain said he had to agree with Schwarzenegger's environmental protection efforts as long as the governor was in the front row to beat him up, adding that he's a federalist who believes in states making salient decisions. "We Westerners care very much about our environment," he said, wanting no global warming pacts without the agreement of India and China. "I side with states on greenhouse emissions," Romney responded, encouraging energy independence. When given a chance to comment on the environment, Paul lamented his lack of opportunity to chime in on the "more conservative than thou" debate. "You'll have another chance to speak," Cooper interrupted Paul.
You'd think the word of the hour before the California crowd would have been "amnesty," but there was actually not much time spent on immigration. Huckabee danced around a question regarding whether children of illegal immigrants should continue to get immediate citizenship, and Romney took the opportunity to run with an issuing driving many conservatives after being asked about his policy on mass deportations. "You allow enough time for people to organize their affairs and go home," he said. "...That's what I found so offensive about the Z-visa ... you must get in line with everyone else who wants to come here." McCain said that, knowing what he knows now about public sentiment on securing the border first, he doesn't believe his immigration legislation would/should go up for a vote.
The word of the hour, though, was "Gipper." The out-of-left-field question of the night belonged to, well, Reagan's diary, which was on the desk next to Cooper. He read an entry about Reagan's decision to appoint Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, then asked the presidential hopefuls whether they would have done the same. "History will have to determine that and I'm not going to come to the Reagan Library and question his decisions," Huckabee said. "I'm not that stupid." The other three shied away from a similar theoretical appointment.
Since we'd at this point gone far too long without a Mitt-Mac smackdown, the debate turned to a lengthy argument of what the word "timetable" means. Romney's quote using the word that provided the basis of a Mac attack was read, re-read, analyzed, analyzed in context, read by Cooper, and basically inspired a lot of Huckabee and Paul grimaces at being the guys not invited to the brawl. Just when it seemed like it couldn't be debated one second more, Romney invoked the R-word when slamming McCain's attacks: "Sorta falls within the kind of dirty tricks that Ronald Reagan would have found reprehensible," he said to big cheers. McCain later told Romney "you know what to do with your money; you can spend it all on negative ads," drawing chuckles.
"I didn't come here to umpire a ballgame between these two," Huckabee snapped when he finally got a chance to talk.
The Richter-scale brawl continued with debate over who's a leader, who's a manager, which is better, etc. Romney contended that governors are better than senators when it comes to leading, and McCain fired a zinger at the businessman, stating, "He bought and sold and sometimes people lost their jobs; that's the nature of business." In the press room, reporters howled. "Real leadership recognizes what your decisions do to people at the bottom," Huckabee chimed in, echoing Edwards with less smarm.
The debate concluded with gusts of the Santa Ana winds across the hilltop library, even though all of the hot air had already blown in the debate. And questions lingered in the air: Who really won? Two guys fought, one guy tried to make his case, and another would regardless be declared the winner on cable news by rapid-fire text messagers. Would the battle between Mitt and Mac grow fiercer after Schwarzenegger's endorsement today? Will Super Tuesday become a full-contact sport?
"We now have a pro-American president of France," McCain said, albeit of global warming, "which shows that if you live long enough, anything is possible."
6:44 pm PST:
The debate is over, and, go figure, people now just want to be next to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mike Huckabee actually scored the winning point on the close, when asked whether Ronald Reagan would endorse him and why. Huckabee thought it would be "incredibly presumptuous and arrogant" to predict which candidate the Gipper would pick. This, of course, after Romney said "me," McCain alluded to himself, and Ron Paul wasn't sure. Nancy Reagan looked pleased with the Huck. Time to eat my complimentary Reagan Library Jelly Bellys and write the story.
6:30 pm PST:
The Ron Paul folks must have been hiding in the fuselage of Air Force One, because he's been getting cheers since the break. The press corps is about to start taking bets on the Mac and Mitt cage match. Huckabee is clearly frustrated at being outside the mutual smackdown, snapping, "I didn't come here to umpire a ballgame between these two." Huckabee and Paul have spent a lot of the debate quietly grumbling to each other, presumably about their lack of questions and camera time.
6:13 pm PST -- After the break
Cage match! McCain and Romney are tangling and waking up the crowd (as well as the press)! Somebody protect that valuable Reagan diary on the desk next to Anderson Cooper before Mitt and Mac start flipping over desks!
6:05 pm PST -- Halftime report
It's official: The Ron Paul smackdown is in full effect! Anderson Cooper is waging this battle, interrupting the gynecologist/congressman at every opportunity as Paul has attempted to turn every recession question into a war referendum. (Like in response to a discussion about infrastructure: "We have a foreign policy where we blow up bridges overseas...") As Romney and McCain, seated next to each other and closest to the moderators, are going for the jugular, Mike Huckabee has been jockeying for equal time. The crowd is pretty subdued, and the Ron Paul fans seem to have been weeded out. The journalists in the press center are rowdier than the polite Republicans hanging out next to Air Force One.
Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.