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The Gop's Kvetch In California


Some quickie debate thoughts:

1.) I guess you have to start with the intense McCain-Romney exchange over whether Romney favored a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq. McCain first leveled the charge a few days before Tuesday's vote in Florida. Romney says it's a lie, and that it was introduced late in the game as a dirty trick. He's right. Romney did use the word "timetable," but clearly avoided connecting it to "withdrawal," which he opposed. McCain is putting words in his mouth. 

Every talking head I heard after the debate said the exchange benefited McCain, since Iraq is what he prefers to talk about. Here's why I think that's wrong: While Romney was obviously trying to hedge a bit with that quote (context matters, as McCain says, and "timetable" was a buzzword favored by war opponents), people already knew Romney was a little weaselly. On the other hand, it seems pretty clear that McCain was punching below the belt, and that's at odds with his reputation for integrity and candor.

2.) In general, Romney continues to be a far, far superior debater. Among other things, he got the better of the exchange over who was the closet liberal, nailing McCain on campaign finance (McCain-Feingold), immigration (McCain-Kennedy), global-warming legislation (McCain-Lieberman), the two Bush tax cuts McCain opposed, and his refusal to allow drilling in ANWR. The indictment was crisp and damning. In response, McCain got off a witty line about how Romney effectively enacted a tax increase when he raised fees in Massachusetts ("I'm sure the people that had to pay it, whether they called them bananas, they still had to pay $730 million extra"). But then he flubbed some names and statistics, which Romney promptly called him on.

McCain also gave one of the most incoherent answers I've heard at a presidential debate this campaign season. Asked how he reconciled his initial argument against the 2001 Bush tax cuts, which he said were skewed toward the wealthy, with his more recent argument that he opposed them because spending was out of control, McCain just kind of rambled from talking point to talking point. First he said working class people need help, which is why he favors a stimulus. Then he talked about being a foot-soldier in the Reagan revolution. Then he careered back to reckless spending. Then he said the GOP had lost Congress because of all that spending. It was mush.  

3.) Having said all that, there's still something that instinctively draws you to McCain and repels you from Romney. I'm not sure if it's the fact that McCain's the one who, as he puts it, chose a career in the military "out of patriotism, not for profit." Or because, as McCain said, Romney was the one who attacked first and most often. Or if it's because being both weaselly and rich makes you fundamentally unlikeable. But as long as the voters continue having a similar reaction--and the exit polls suggest they are--it's hard to see how these debates give Romney much of a boost.

4.) As usual, Huckabee was a highly appealing presence tonight. (Though Romney made quick work of his idea for massive infrastructure projects as a form of stimulus.) Huck was gracious and witty responding to Rush Limbaugh's criticism that nominating him would destroy the party ("You know, I wish Rush loved me as much as I love Rush"). He was utterly sensible when asked what he sees when he looks into Vladimir Putin's eyes ("I look at people's actions, because you can look into their eyes and their eyes can lie, but their actions don't"). And he was winning when asked whether Ronald Reagan would endorse him ("Let me just say this, I'm not going to pretend he would endorse me. I wish he would. I would love that, but I endorse him, and I'm going to tell you why...").

Still, watching Huck tonight made me feel like we'd come full circle since last summer, when he was little more than a well-spoken asterisk. He may carry a couple Southern states on Tuesday, but, at this point, he's running for what comes after the campaign (the veep slot, a cabinet position, a cable talk show, etc.), not for the nomination.

5.) This is going to sound incredibly catty, but Romney looked a little too Paulie Walnuts for my taste tonight. If he weren't a teetotaler, I'd suspect him of buying that suit after over-imbibing at his Nevada caucus victory party.

--Noam Scheiber