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The Fox Debate In Florida

Pretty much everything you needed to know about tonight's GOP debate--and much of what you need to know about the GOP race--happened in the first 15 or 20 minutes. That's when Fox News correspondent Chris Wallace invited each of the leading candidates to attack their rivals--and the candidates took him up on it.

The differences in the way the four front-runners responded highlighted a key divide in their campaign strategies. Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson swept their deviations from party orthodoxy under the rug, as they have for much of the race, and cast themselves as true conservatives. For instance, when attacked for running to Ted Kennedy's left during his Senate campaign in 1994--a campaign in which he supported abortion rights and distanced himself from Ronald Reagan--Romney recalled himself as a Gingrichite revolutionary. "I was fighting for issues like making sure that we would have the death penalty in our state, fighting to keep our taxes down. I fought, as well, to secure our borders. I fought [for welfare reform]." Later, when asked why he alone of the four major candidates supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Romney explained that only he was on the frontlines of the culture war. "I've been in a state that has gay marriage. I recognize that the consequences of gay marriage fall far beyond just the relationship between a man and a woman."

Thompson, who sounded much more lucid and comfortable tonight than during his first debate, also pivoted quickly from accusations of ideological heresy. Asked by Wallace about his lobbying work for Planned Parenthood--"the nation's largest abortion provider"--Thompson attributed it to some quirk of his law firm's organizational chart before touting his pro-life Senate record. Thompson's approach to questions about his purity was to drown them out with a recitation of buzzwords. He responded to conservative criticism of the No Child Left Behind act, a bill he supported, by invoking vouchers and charter schools, eventually grasping for the "societal breakdown going on in this country." He deflected an accusation about his opposition to tort reform by invoking states rights and federalism. At times he seemed to be saying: You can question the way I act on my principles, but you can't question the principles themselves.

John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, on the other hand, hewed to a policy of acknowledging occasional differences with conservatives and touting their frankness instead. It was, in other words, their campaign strategies in miniature. "Well, I don't change, I haven't changed," McCain said after a question about his courting of social conservatives. "I think that anybody who is going to receive the nomination of their party obviously needs to appeal to and make their case to, but not pander to, all parts of the Republican Party." In his strongest response of the night, and maybe the entire campaign, McCain demonstrated that distaste for pandering by declining to speculate on how the Iraq war might play against Hillary Clinton. "I don't know, and I can't be concerned," McCain said. "Because I know too many brave young Americans that are serving and sacrificing in Iraq, as we speak. I'd much rather lose a war than losing a campaign." For good measure, he got off a memorable jab at Hillary's proposal for a $1 million Woodstock museum. "Now, my friends, I wasn't there," he mused. "I was tied up at the time." The audience loved it.

Likewise, Giuliani, as he has for several months now, asked voters to judge him by his results, which he insists are conservative, even if that label doesn't always apply to his positions. "New York City had a policy of allowing people who are illegal immigrants to report crime," he said after Thompson bashed his "sanctuary" approach. "The results had to be pretty darn good. I brought down crime by over 60 percent in New York City." In response to earlier criticism by Thompson, Giuliani noted that "[Y]ou can always find one exception or two to someone being absolutely conservative or absolutely this or absolutely that, but I think I had a heck of a lot of conservative results."

Rudy's only new (and somewhat surprising) wrinkle tonight was that he went negative on someone other than Romney (which is to say, his closest rival). It was Giuliani who outed Thompson for opposing tort reform, labeling him "the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate." It seemed tactically effective in that it blunted Thompson's attack. But it also elevated Thompson, something you'd like to avoid when the target isn't considered a serious rival. (Then again, Rudy clearly came prepared with the tort-reform indictment. Maybe he knows something I don't.)

So which approach was more successful: the Romney/Thompson appeal to ideological purity or the McCain/Giuliani embrace of authenticity? I'm not entirely sure, but I think a few observations are relevant here. First, the advantage of the authenticity gambit is that it makes a candidate look and sound comfortable in his own skin, whereas the ideological purist must steel himself for the inevitable "gotcha" moment. McCain seemed as close to capturing the magnetism of his 2000 campaign as I've seen this year; Giuliani flashed his quick wit multiple times to the delight of the crowd. (One applause line: "I did 210 weddings when I was mayor of New York City. ... They were all men and women. I hope. You got to give me a little slack here. It was New York City, you know.") Though Romney and Thompson weren't exactly hemming and hawing--Thompson got off one of the better quips of the night, a shot a Ted Kennedy's girth in which he suggested it would be tough to get to the left or the right of the Massachusetts senator--they exhibited a low-grade defensiveness throughout.

The second observation has to do with Romney in particular, for whom the disjunction between his conservative packaging and his moderate instincts is more pronounced. Romney had two very solid answers tonight. The first dealt with his strengths alongside Clinton, regarding which he explained, "I've spent 25 years in the business world, running a small business that became a large one. I've worked in 20 countries around the world, working on investments ... Hillary Clinton wants to run the largest enterprise in the world, the government of the United States. ... She hasn't run a corner store." The other question had to do with entitlements. Romney invoked his experience passing healthcare in Massachusetts and then said: "[Y]ou know, Democrats also love America. As Ronald Reagan used to say, it's not that liberals are ignorant. It's just that what they know is wrong. So, you've got to--you can educate each other... And you find common ground."

There are obvious tactical reasons for Romney to run as a conservative. But sometimes you can't help wishing he'd run more authentically--as the moderate technocrat he is at heart.

--Noam Scheiber