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The Dither in Des Moines

Wrapping up the Register's GOP debate.

Okay, okay. So it was a completely lame debate: Another inexplicable decision to take meaty topics off the table. Very few questions designed to elicit confrontation.  Extremely confining time limits. And all of this humorlessly enforced by a controlling, schoolmarmish moderator. Oh, and there was also the ludicrous presence of Alan Keyes, who managed to make the cut even though Dennis Kucinich has been barred from today’s Democratic installment.

Having said that, the debate did do one thing: It nicely illuminated the central divide among the GOP front-runners. On the one hand, you had Mitt Romney--wonk, empiricist, manager, PowerPoint aficionado. On the other, Mike Huckabee--sympathetic little guy, preternatural charmer, a man blessed with near-perfect thematic pitch. Now that both men, thanks to their various contortions, occupy the same territory on a range of key issues, voters are mostly left weighing stylistic merits. And, in that respect, Huckabee and Romney couldn’t be more different.

What Romney was selling yesterday was a very literal version of can-do optimism--his faith that he could bring about a rosier tomorrow by working through a long, national to-do list. Romney’s very first answer cautioned that, “this is not a time for us to wring our hands and think that the future is bleak.” “In fact,” he said, “the future is bright.” He went on to enumerate the various future-brightening chores he would perform as president: Bringing about good jobs, health care, a strong economy; lowering our dependence on foreign oil; cutting spending.

Romney revisited his to-do-list again and again. If anything, he only added items as the debate went on, as if to imply that the mere volume of tasks would exhaust a lesser being. On a question about the tradeoff between manufacturing jobs and open markets, Romney said 25 years in the private sector had taught him how to create a job or two: “That’s by investing in education, technology, innovation, getting ourselves off foreign oil, and making sure the playing field is level [with respect to trade agreements]. It's not right now.” He concluded, ever-optimistically, that “America can compete anywhere in the world.”

When Romney was asked what he would accomplish during his first year as president—as direct an invitation for a laundry list as you'll ever hear--I half expected him to throw back his head and cackle with delight. “I want to establish a strategy to help us overwhelm global jihad and keep the world safe,” he said. “I want to end illegal immigration … the expanded growth of entitlements--rein 'em in … reduce our tax burden on middle-income families … get us on a track to become energy independent, get our schools on track to become competitive globally.” (That all, governor?) He delivered these lines with something I’d never heard from him before--an optimistic, Clinton-esque rasp. Whether this was conscious or just some mild campaign-trail hoarseness, I couldn’t tell. But it somehow made me more inclined to believe him.

And yet… Each time Romney went on one of his goal-mongering rampages, it seemed like Huckabee was there to one-up him--to see Romney’s technocratic optimism and raise him to some new thematic height. Never was this more apparent than after Romney’s romp through his first year in office. “Well, I like the laundry list that everybody's had,” Huckabee said. “The reality is none of that's going to happen until we bring the country back together.” At this point he reached for an Obama-like flourish: “I think the first priority is to be a president of all the United States. … We've got to quit fighting amongst ourselves and start putting the better interests of this nation [first]. If that doesn't happen, we'll get none of these things done.” I later heard some cynics in the press corps sneer at this sentiment. But a Huckabee aide told me the staff collectively swooned when he uttered the line (which, she said, was completely spontaneous), and I suspect Iowans will follow suit.

Huckabee had another nice pivot after a perfectly solid Romney response on education, in which Romney bragged about his students’ best-in-the-nation performance on standardized English and math exams. “We have 6,000 kids every day drop out in this country. They drop out because they're bored to death. They're in a 19th century education system in a 21st century world,” Huckabee said, going big-bore all over again. “If we really are serious, first of all, we make sure we build the curriculum around their interests rather than push them into something they don't care about.” Then he closed with a vintage Huckabee-ism: A call to “unleash weapons of mass instruction.” The press section groaned all over again. But I guarantee Iowans will be seeing this line over and over in their local news accounts. And, more often than not, they’ll probably chuckle.

Huckabee did finally stumble a bit when pressed for details. Asked to provide two specific examples of how faith might influence policy, Huckabee never quite descended from his 50,000-foot perch. Instead he laid out two principles (treat everyone as you’d like to be treated, assume you’ll be judged by how you treat the worst off—which actually sounded more like one principle stated two ways) and said they’d guide him on health care and education. He demurred when the moderator suggested these weren’t exactly ten-point plans, at which point you could practically see Romney fight the urge to dip into his mental binder of white papers.

But by that point Huckabee had long since done what he’d set out to do. Any debate that doesn’t hit foreign policy or immigration, the two subjects more or less ruled off limits yesterday, is probably going to yield a Huckabee win. But this wasn’t a victory by default. Romney brought his A-game. Huckabee was just a little better.