You should enjoy it as ten Republican presidential candidates take the same stage at Saint Anselm College occupied by the eight Democratic contenders two nights ago. The hosts, CNN, The Union Leader, and WMUR remain the same, as will the moderator, Wolf Blitzer and the time (7-9 pm on CNN).
But the similarities should end there. The Republicans are much more divided this cycle on core issues of interest to their base than are the Democrats. Immigration is the paradigm case. The race is nowhere near as settled -- the Dems have a clear top tier and a lone front runner while much of the biggest news will be about a Republican candidate, Fred Thompson, who is not even in the debate, and while polls are all over the place with regard to Thompson, Giuliani, Romney, and McCain. Read more about what to expect from tonight's debate. . . .
updated to add time and cable channel.
Even though the debate will cover many issues, immigration is front and center as the divisive issue in the Republican party. Libertarians, pragmatists, and business interests favor reform. "Law and order" nativists and xenophobes are joined by enough of the Republican rank and file to form a populist opposition to what they call "amnesty". Bush calls the opposition "bigotry" and McCain gave a major speech defending reform in Miami yesterday which The Miami Herald headlined as "blasting rivals"
The Republican President and McCain are the leaders, along with Ted Kennedy, in pushing the reform bill that is now in the Senate. Brownback was a co-sponsor of last years' similar bill. Editorials, blogs, and press releases from the various faction of the GOP are full of invective as well as serious argument. Tancredo is campaigning almost solely on that issue and is joined by Duncan Hunter who wants to militarize the border (and everything else it sometimes seems).
McCain's approach is to ask the other candidates, "What is your idea?" This is the debaters' demand for a counterproposal, an argument that says either you are defending an untenable status quo or you are not serious at all about solving the problem. Romney and Giuliani have no plans. The "just close the border" approach of Tancredo and Hunter has not been adopted by all of the others. The format of this debate, unlike a focused policy debate, does not guarantee McCain a win with this otherwise reasonable question, however. But this money quote from his Miami speech shows us where the debate is going:
"I would hope that any candidate for president would not suggest doing nothing," McCain said to applause. ``And I would hope they wouldn't play politics for their own interests if the cost of their ambition was to make this problem even harder to solve. To want the office so badly that you would intentionally make our country's problems worse might prove you can read a poll or take a cheap shot, but it hardly demonstrates presidential leadership.''
He added: ``Pandering for votes on this issue, while offering no solution to the problem, amounts to doing nothing. And doing nothing is silent amnesty.''
Major policy questions begin with Iraq. Bush has recently compared Iraq to Korea. Candidates should be asked about their long term vision and whether they would support permanent bases and how long they think we will need to be there.
The clash between fighting terror and civil liberty and human rights also has potential. Torture was, astonishingly, denounced only by McCain in the last debate. What about habeus coprus? What did Romney mean in the last debate when he said "Guantanamo should be doubled?" What about violation of FISA law? Should the law be amended? Does the President have inherent authority to ignore law if he thinks it in the national security interest of the United States? These are questions that go to the core of the "small government" libertarian core of what used to be a defining feature of the GOP philosophy.
Abortion and GLBT rights should not be much of an issue because the positions are fairly settled there even though Brownback is trying to make an issue of Romney's not using "murder" to describe abortion. Still, this being a GOP debate, and civil unions having been signed into New Hampshire law last week, expect a decent amount of time on this.
Taxes. They will all ssay they oppose tax increases, but Rudy has not "signed the pledge" and the more interesting question is what they would cut to balcance the budget if they are not for tax increases.
Trash. Most likely "raise your hand" question: should Scooter (who was sentenced today to 30 months in prison) be pardoned?
The candidates and their dynamics.
A McCain/Romney fight has been brewing and increasing in temperature ever since the last debate. The New York Times explains:
Tactically, Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney are in direct competition because they have both invested enormous resources to compete in the early nominating contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Mr. Giuliani, though, seems to be leaning toward competing more heavily in the more populous states, including California and New York, holding their primaries on Feb. 5. Several state-by-state polls have shown Mr. Romney gaining ground -- even holding leads, in some -- in Iowa and New Hampshire.
That, some consultants said, could make Mr. McCain more likely to criticize Mr. Romney by name in an effort to stem his progress.
"I think it's a New Hampshire strategy, more than anything else," said Edward J. Rollins, a Republican consultant.
If that's the case, tonight's debate could be ground zero for an explosion. McCain has the best line of the duel so far, hitting Romney on NRA pandering, lack of an immigration plan and personal hypocricy on immigration all at once with his suggestion that Romney "get out his small-varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn."
Even though McCain's immigration speech was aimed at all critics of reform, Romney interprets them that way.
Look for Giuliani to try to stay out of the way. Ron Paul will try to go after Rudy, but it will be up to Blitzer to question Giuiliani's anti-terror credibility, perhaps as a surrogate for the fire fighter that blame him for unecessary loss of life on 9/11 and in its aftermath.
Brownback will play holier than thou and might again ask Romney why he does not call abortion "murder" which also attacks Giuliani's liberalism on the issue.
Duncan Hunter will use military jargon and remind us he is on the SArmed Services committee as often as Bill Richardson talks about being Governor of New Mexico.
Governors Gilmore and Tommy "Not Fred" Thompson will likely be all but ignored except when Wolf asks them a question that begs to be asked of a front runner like he did by going to Kucinich on the question of our long term foreign policy and military posture.
Huckabee will not attack. He will try to be the candidate Fred Thompson supporters will consider.
While it is supposedly the same as Sunday night's there is no reason it has to be used the same way. Will Wolf Blitzer correct some of his many mistakes ("raise your hand" proliferation, premature interruption, deflection of voter questions and misallocation of time)?
The three "top tier" candidates, Romney, McCain, and Giuliani are arrayed in the center with Giuliani between Romney and McCain (too bad Romney and McCain cannot be within punching distance) as Hillary, Obama, and Edwards were and CNN made no attempthide the fact that the arrangement was deliberate according to a source in one of the campaigns,
We wish there was a "Talk Clock" like the Dodd campaign provided for the last debate.
Check out the Blogometer from National Journal's Hotline for today's round up. They say, "All eyes on Mitt," who leads in NH and take note of Brownback's criticism of him for not calling abortion murder, of a whisper campaign focused on Mormomism reportedly emanating from the Giuliani camp, but not McCain's duel.
What I'll be looking for.
The front runners have a fragile hold on their positions. Romney is vulnerable to charges of insincerity and flip flopping. Giuliani has very little actual policy meat on his national security candidate bones and has articulated no extensive foreign or domestic policy position. McCain, because he does have positions, needs to find a way to appeal to voters' emotions in a way that offsets the rejection of his positions by many in the base. So, what I'll look for are moments from the debate than can be used as hooks to exploit these weaknesses.
As a correlary, Huckabee is the one lower tier candidate who has shown the ability in early debates to take advantage of the forum. Can he find a way to be the person he contrasts to Thompson in this quote:
"[It's] what we might call the 'Mighty Mouse' candidacy," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Monday while campaigning in Concord, New Hampshire's capital city. "You know: 'Here I come to save the day.' And in the end voters are not necessarily looking for Mighty Mouse to fly in -- they are looking for somebody who stands their ground and goes the distance."
Finally, it will be interesting to see if Ron Paul aims at Giuliani specifically or just plays the role of generic libertarian gadfly. I just heard Wolf tip his hand that he will give the opportunity. Paul's debate with Giuliani over terrorist "blowback" from U.S. foreign policy continued in the wonkier parts of the world after the South Carolina debate, and Paul's argument, that national security experts do agree that U.S. policy can have a counterproductive effect in the "war on terror", is a serious one. Giuliani grandstanded last time. Perhaps Wolf or Ron can probe beneath the rhetorical surface.