1.31.2008

McCain survives Los Angeles debate, gets major endorsements

The four remaining Republican candidates gathered in LA last night for a CNN debate at the Reagan library. With McCain clearly in the position of front-runner, the Arizona Senator did not need to make any waves. His status had been solidified earlier in the day when Rudy Giuliani withdrew from the race and endorsed him. However expected Giuliani's move was, it will greatly help McCain who no longer has to divide the votes of moderate Republicans with the former Mayor. And McCain looks stronger than ever in places like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut with Giuliani's departure.

News also emerged last night that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger is preparing to endorse John McCain. While Schwarzenneger is not universally popular among conservative voters, he confirms that the moderate vote is anchoring itself solidly to McCain. If anything Schwarzenneger's position is similar to Crist's, and there is no evidence of a conservative backlash in Florida to the Governor's endorsement.

And with that four candidates took center stage last night, with the main topic to be addressed: Is McCain a true conservative? Romney started off by going after McCain's conservative credentials and saying he falls outside of the conserative mainstream; but he did so timidly, realizing that McCain had never really been attacked before and unsure of how to proceed. McCain gladly retaliated by bringing up Romney's record during his tenure as Massachusetts Governor.

Romney shyied away from pressing his point again later in the debate when the moderators pressed John McCain on two issues that conservatives see as the Senator's main apostasies: tax cuts and immigration. Asked to explain why he voted against the Bush tax cuts years ago and more precisely about the justification he offered then that they were too skewed to the rich, McCain ignored his original quote and reverted to his usual lines about spending. Later on, McCain was asked if he would vote for his own immigration bill again if it came on the floor of the Senate given his new rhetoric on the issue. McCain answered that the bill will not come to a vote instead of offering a straight answer. Both occasions were perfect set-ups for Romney to go after McCain and use these moments to show that the Senator is not fit to be the GOP nominee, but Romney stayed put.

Huckabee could have been a great help to Romney last night; he also could have jumped on McCain for such moments, and he could have also pointed out the flaws of McCain's record. The new front-runner was able to fight back on Romney's charges and make it seem like usual campaign back-and-forth, but it would have been harder for him to resist a team effort to paint him as too moderate. But Huckabee, of course, is auditioning for VP at this point.

And then came the debate's climax, as Anderson Cooper asked Mitt Romney to respond to McCain's claim in Florida over the week-end that he had supported a timetable for withdrawal back in April. Looking infuriated, Romney denied the charge and, turning to McCain, accused him of the kind of dirty tricks Reagan would never approve of (!) bringing up that most news agencies were calling McCain's attack a dishonest lie. And there is really no question that McCain is distorting Romney's words; but that did not prevent him from once again lashing into Romney for using the word timetable, which, McCain says, was the "buzzword" of the time.

McCain muddied the charges even further by adding that Romney did not support the surge from the beginning, conflating two unrelated issues. But that had the result of confusing Romney even more, as he launched into an elaborate series of defenses. While his points were obvious, they did not necessarily come across as such; and Romney's repeated lament that McCain would have brought up this old quote at one of the 12 prior debates if it was truly an issue was not the most effective of push-backs.

Romney managed to make McCain look petty in that exchange, as the Senator's tendency to grin condescendingly and attack gratuitously was once again on display yesterday. Neither of those charges fit the image of the "Straight Talk Express," but it is one that has been evident throughout the debates of the past month. Unfortunately for Romney, his challenge was to convince voters that McCain is not conservative, not that he does not always follow the principles of clean politics. If anything, many Republicans could be relieved to see McCain willing to go negative if they conceive of the Senator as a too conciliatory politician.

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