This was the first debate I’ve watched using CNN’s online real-time reaction tracker. It’s a graph from 1 to 100 that shows you how people are reacting, positively or negatively (100 being absolute positive, 1 being absolute negative), toward what a candidate is saying, and it’s pretty amazing. The Politico– CNN’s partner in the debate– reported earlier today that Rudy Giuliani’s decline marked the end of 9/11 politics, but according to the real-time tracker, they’re alive and well. The graph spiked wildly whenever a candidate mentioned 9/11, Al Qaeda, or “surrender” in Iraq. Also of note, Romney reactions generally hovered in the 70s, Huckabee was around 60 on average, Paul stayed around 50, and surprisingly, John McCain had trouble all night getting above 40. With that said, onto the analysis.
McCain continued the line of attack he began in Florida by using an obviously out-of-context quote to accuse Romney of supporting a timetable for withdrawal in Iraq. Romney defended himself well, at one point asking McCain why he considered himself an expert on his (Romney’s) record. Even Anderson Cooper got in on the action by reading the full quote and defending Romney on the point. The moment badly undermined John McCain’s reputation as a straight talker, and whatever traction he gained from that line of attack in Florida, it has the very real potential of backfiring nationally.
1. Mitt Romney – The recent economic downturn was the best thing that could have happened to Romney’s campaign because he no longer feels pressed to try to be someone he’s not. He was never convincing as the newly-converted social conservative, and as long as the topics were abortion, gay rights, and stem cell research, the size of the holes in his record were matched only by the physical discomfort he showed while answering questions on those subjects. Last night, the topic was the economy and Romney was clearly in his element. He made the mistake early of bringing up the subject of endorsements and John McCain hit him hard, noting that Romney’s hometown Boston papers all endorsed McCain in the New Hampshire primary. But Romney recovered later with a strong defense against McCain’s timetable attack, and a strong case for why his time in the private sector displayed leadership not, as McCain asserts, management skills.
2. Mike Huckabee – Scored points for honesty by being the only candidate to note that Americans are worse off now than they were eight years ago (though he blamed it on Congress, not Bush). He wisely pulled the discussion of conservatism away from the economy and back to his strong suit, social issues. He also gave a good defense of federalism on the question of whether he sided with Governor Schwarzenegger or George Bush on California’s climate change policy, and he convincingly echoed Mitt Romney on why governors make better presidents than senators. Unfortunately though, he did little to reassure voters about his foreign policy experience, as he stumbled through questions on Vladimir Putin and the military. Also spent too much time complaining about the lack of attention he was getting from the moderators.
3. Ron Paul – Ron Paul supporters are notorious for crying foul, but tonight the moderators did seem to be, whether consciously or not, marginalizing his presence. At one point, Paul attempted to use his time to answer an earlier question he didn’t get a shot at, and Anderson Cooper quickly jumped in to cut him off. Nevertheless, Paul gave a typically strong debate performance, railing against government spending and American military overreach. Perhaps overstepped his rhetoric when he seemed to absolve the president (not just Bush, but the office itself) of any responsibility for the economy.
4. John McCain – Unlike Mitt Romney, the recent economic downturn was the worst thing that could have happened to McCain’s campaign. He fumbled the first question of the debate, looking every bit as uncomfortable on economic issues as Romney claims he is. At one point, McCain said the words “sub-prime” but stumbled as though he couldn’t remember what came next, until finally abandoning the phrase altogether. And on the question of why he’d be a better economic president than Romney, he made an awkward pivot to national security that didn’t work. On the plus side, McCain came prepared with good oppo research and hit Romney hard on his economic record in Massachussets. He also gave Romney a great shot on the Boston newspaper endorsements, and though McCain lost the debate, that’s likely to be the clip that’s played on news broadcasts across the country. His attempt to continue the timetable attack on Romney failed miserably, mostly because it’s so obviously false. When Anderson Cooper calls your bluff on an attack, it’s time to back down. McCain would be wise to abandon that strategy altogether. Overall, it was a long night for John McCain, and as long as the economy is on the frontburner he’s going to struggle.