Robert Novak's thoughts on the Republican presidential hopefulls right now. Sign up for his newsletter and others' for free at the Human Events website.
Republican candidates had their turn to debate last week, giving rise to several revelations about their relative strengths and weaknesses.
Giuliani: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) had the worst performance of any candidate in the Republican debate. Despite months of preparation on how to address the abortion issue, he was all over the map, very uncertain of himself. His shoulder-shrugging answer that the repeal of Roe v. Wade would be "okay" sounded quite flippant -- after years of defending the decision, it was a poor answer, given as though the topic were not serious. His repeated statement that he "hates" abortion is getting old. His answer on public funding for abortion made no sense. His answer on the influence of Christian conservatives effectively amounted to a duck.
Giuliani can certainly learn to give better answers, but his poor performance in debate corresponded with a drop in the polls. He is currently at his lowest point of the year with 25 percent in CNN's poll, although he remains the frontrunner. His problems in the coming months will likely come from places other than his failure to give good answers on abortion. For example, a video is currently circulating on the Internet in which Giuliani praises his wife -- a controversial figure for a number of reasons -- as an expert on biological weapons (she previously worked in pharmaceutical sales). His ties to Bernard Kerik remain potentially problematic as well.
McCain: For much of the debate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) looked like he was trying to give a stump speech instead of answering questions. In fact, at one point, the audience nearly burst into applause because McCain left them little choice. He was speaking so forcefully that he would have looked foolish if his speech ended in silence.
McCain did not bomb in the debate as Giuliani did. At times he shone, as with his joke about congressional spending and drunken sailors. But he appeared uncomfortable on stage and angry most of the time. His gestures evinced a man in extreme pain. His declaration that he would go "to the gates of Hell" to catch terrorist Osama bin Laden sounded ridiculous. On the other hand, McCain was strong on spending and earmarks. His idea for a $3,000 health insurance tax credit will have strong bipartisan appeal, should he become the GOP nominee.
McCain's problems have led to internal reorganization of his campaign, which has included the firing of his finance director. Political Director Michael Dennehy recently stepped down to spend more time with his family -- usually Washington-ese for either "I've been demoted/fired" or "I am resigning out of frustration."
Currently, McCain's advisors are putting on their best face, taking consolation in his continued (but mostly slim) leads in early states such as New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa. They are optimistic about the organizations they have in place in those states. But such early leads tend to evaporate in presidential politics.
Romney: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) probably had the best performance of any of the major candidates. For the most part, he departed from his stilted, staccato speaking style and sounded confident and knowledgeable. Romney finally is in double-digits in the new CNN poll, but still trails the non-candidate, former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.).
Romney opened himself up to attacks, however, by praising the health care system he instituted in Massachusetts. In the past, Romney has qualified his support for the bill, which effectively imposes a tax penalty on those who do not buy health insurance. He has always said before that he had to accept many Democratic provisions that he opposed. But his unqualified praise for the program during the debate is surely premature. Key parts of the program are just going into effect this month, and if it proves to be a disaster, he is setting himself up to take a fall.
Fred Thompson: Absent from the debate was the most discussed man outside the race -- former Sen. Thompson. Thompson appeared the following night to address the Orange County Lincoln Club in a wealthy area of Southern California.
- Thompson, who is not a declared candidate but will likely become one next month, has benefited from conservative dissatisfaction with the candidates currently in the Republican field. They find Giuliani too liberal, Romney too untrustworthy and McCain too unreliable. Thompson has risen effortlessly, without spending a dime, to tie or even pull ahead of those top three candidates. Without lifting a finger, he has won straw polls in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Oklahoma and California.
- Thompson's speech was disappointing, particularly in its delivery. Indeed, the substance of what he said was impressive. But Thompson managed, in a 4,500-word address, to say much less clearly what he would have said in the 1,600-word prepared text excerpt his staff released prior to the speech. The pre-released text received rave reviews from conservatives who read it on the Internet, but attendees at the speech in California were underwhelmed.
- The prepared text contained the simple and concise red-meat language that Republicans want to hear right now. The prepared text quoted Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a conservative stalwart, and was heavy on the supply-side economics of Ronald Reagan. The actual delivered speech meandered through many of the same ideas in a dull, cliché-ridden and verbose performance. It was not well received at the dinner itself, if crowd reactions are any indication. Thompson had trouble with the podium microphone as his low, conversational tones faded in and out. Thompson worried that the long Lincoln Club program preceding his speech may have turned off the audience, but he may have been the one who lost his enthusiasm. Naturally, expectations were high to begin with. The puzzling part is that an actor would fail in the delivery -- the very area in which he should be most likely to succeed.
- The excitement aroused in melancholy Republican ranks by the politician-commentator-actor will not be doused by one lackluster performance. Obviously, Thompson will need some preparation if he really wants to run. The deeper concern by some supporters is whether the tepid reaction in Orange County will shake what had seemed his clear resolve to make the race.
- Among the best parts of his speech were his reference to "malaise" -- an unmistakable reference to Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign -- and his statement that as the world's problems grow bigger, political leaders "are getting smaller." Both of these are subtle, implicit criticisms of President Bush that are nonetheless appropriately gentle.
- Thompson is considering a different kind of presidential candidacy, the sort that sees him raising small contributions over the Internet and staying several days at a time in Iowa instead of zipping in and out. But his debut speech here as a putative presidential candidate was ordinary. It will be revealing how much he changes his approach in forthcoming non-candidate speeches to Republican gatherings in Virginia and Connecticut.