From the Gates Early
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, Politico.com, 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.