Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


From the Gates Early

By Shawn Healy
On the eve of the Kentucky Derby, I can't help but reference the horse race that is the 2008 presidential election. The Republicans held their first of TWELVE scheduled debates last evening at the Reagan Museum and Library, while the Democrats met last week in South Carolina for the first of SIXTEEN debates.

I'll play the part of pundit below, but as a self-described political junkie I marveled at the interactive features offered by the modern candidate forum. While Bill Clinton made the town hall style format his own,, a sponsor of last night's debate along with MSNBC, brought the auditorium to our livings rooms. The site allowed viewers to select questions submitted beforehand for each individual candidate. There were three options for each candidate, and the questions came from the general public. While some of the questions left much to be desired (e.g., How many troops have died in Iraq), and I managed to vote with the minority on all ten, the concept itself was the biggest winner on Thursday evening. Here's hoping it resurfaces throughout the presidential contest that has only EIGHTEEN months remaining.

The debate itself was dominated by a man not in attendance, the namesake of the museum, Ronald Reagan. Most candidates went out of their way to embrace the Gipper, and with a few exceptions ran far away from the current occupant. Moreover, one can't help but think about the impact that Fred Thompson's candidacy could have on the race. The Law and Order star may be in the missing link in a field arguably lacking a mainstream conservative. Thomson, Fred, not Tommy, didn't have a flag-themed podium, but his 6'6" shadow looms large over the unsettled GOP field.

What follows is my assessment of candidate performances. In the spirit of my former career as a teacher, I assign each a subjective grade. I'll start with the three favorites and make my way to the back of the field.

Governor Mitt Romney: Hefty fundraiser looked and talked presidential. Although his responses sometimes lacked substance, he was the clear winner among the three frontrunners, Fred Thompson excluded. Grade: A.

Senator John McCain: Started slowly, but his experience came through in the end. Still missing the maverick magic of 2000. Grade: B.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani: If you understand where he stands on abortion please explain. He was jittery, repeatedly referenced his accomplishment of cutting crime in New York, and stumbled through a response to a question about the differences between Shiia and Sunni Muslims. Grade: D.

Governor Tommy Thompson: Perhaps the most issue-oriented and policy savvy of the ten participants, he fails to exude the charisma of Romney. Grade: B.

Governor Huckabee: Impressive grasp of policy and evidence of strong executive experience through pragmatic governance. Grade: B.

Senator Sam Brownback
: Clearly comfortable behind the podium, he, along with Huckabee, is the most socially conservative candidate. Defended the use of faith to guide policy positions. Grade: B-.

Governor James Gilmore: Unpolished, erratic, and mostly incoherent. Field still waiting for the "true conservative" who can win on the day of the race. Grade: D.

Representative Duncan Hunter: Emphasized strong defense abroad and border control. Not clear why he's in the race. Debate performance didn't help. Grade: D.

Representative Tom Tancredo: Uncomfortable with the debate format, a single issue (immigration) candidate, seemed alternately boorish and aristocratic. Grade: D-.

Representative Ron Paul: Who? Even I was unfamiliar with the Texas congressman entering the evening... He played the role of Mike Gravel in the Democratic debate, who managed to make Dennis Kucinich appear mainstream. Thanks to Rep. Paul, the same can be said about Tom Tancredo. Grade: F.


Anonymous Fred Thompson said...

For the latest on Fred!


6:30 PM  

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at