Debate Night: When Lightning Strikes

In a presidential campaign season where debate fatigue already looms as a serious threat, there are occasionally moments of true spontaneity that make these events worth watching.

At the third GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, it was mostly same-old, same-old, in spite of the all the preshow hype over a possible John McCain/Mitt Romney smackdown on immigration. But then Mother Nature stepped in.

Asked to comment on a Roman Catholic bishop who compared his abortion stance to Pontius Pilate’s position on crucifying Jesus Christ, Rudy Giuliani opened his mouth to answer when lightning struck, quite literally, causing CNN’s sound system at the debate site to crackle and give out.

Giuliani jokingly looked at the ceiling, as if he feared the wrath of a vengeful God—a fantastic bit of comic timing made even funnier when the boom of thunder and lightning interrupted his second attempt to answer the question. Amid more static from the sound system, McCain and Romney, positioned on either side of Giuliani, began slowly backing away from Rudy, as if he might get struck down by the heavens at any minute. It was a moment that could not have been more humorous even if the former New York City mayor’s pals at "Saturday Night Live" had scripted it.

At each of the three GOP debates so far—including last night’s showdown at St. Anselm’s College outside Manchester—Giuliani has emerged with his front-runner status largely intact. McCain and Romney, his leading opponents, have mainly aimed their fire at each other—leaving Giuliani essentially untouched above the fray. In other words, they’ve backed away from him, as they did amid the lightning—even though he’s the man they are chasing at the moment.

McCain tried to change that pattern last night. Yes, he's had his claws out for Romney, on immigration among other issues. But the Arizona senator had his biggest clash of the night with Rudy, who opposes the Senate immigration bill McCain helped negotiate. Still, it was Rudy who started the fight.

From the podium, Giuliani described the bill as a “typical Washington mess”—one that, in his view, will only make the nation’s illegal immigration problems worse. McCain replied that he could brief Giuliani on the bill, implying that the former New York City mayor didn’t know what he was talking about. “I’ve read the 400 pages,” Rudy snapped in response. (Giuliani has read the entire immigration bill? Perhaps—but it's doubtful that most of the members of the Senate set to vote on the legislation can credibly make that claim).

Some of the second-tier candidates tried to go after Rudy, mostly in roundabout ways. When Sam Brownback told the audience he didn’t think the GOP would nominate a presidential candidate who is not pro-life, moderator Wolf Blitzer quickly asked whether he could support Giuliani if he wins majority support in the primaries. “I have great respect for the mayor,” Brownback said, visibly uncomfortable. “I just don’t think we’re going to nominate somebody that is not pro-life.” Brownback added that he would support whoever eventually emerged as the GOP nominee.

With less than five minutes left to go in the debate, Duncan Hunter lobbed a last-minute bomb at McCain, Romney and Giuliani, attacking them for being too moderate. “I think the guy who’s got the most influence with these three gentlemen is Ted Kennedy,” the California congressman said. “I think we need to move away from the Kennedy wing of the Republican party.” But Hunter's three targets declined to respond—perhaps an indication of how seriously they take the California congressman, who barely registers in national polls.

The next time the GOP candidates get together on stage, Fred Thompson will likely have joined the field—making it that much harder for the second-tier hopefuls to break through. Mike Huckabee spoke eloquently about his faith, and Tommy Thompson got off a good one-liner about President Bush; when asked how he might deploy Bush in a Thompson administration, the former Wisconsin governor replied, "I certainly would not send him to the United Nations.” But those moments were hardly sufficient to vault either candidate into the top tier.

Romney again defended himself against allegations that’s he’s a flip-flopper on social issues, but seemed less engaged in Tuesday’s debate than he had in the previous two. He stumbled straight out of the gate, offering an odd answer to a now pretty obvious question on the campaign trail: knowing what he knows now, was it a mistake to invade Iraq? “It’s a null set,” Romney replied, using a mathematical term to try to bat the question away. “It’s a hypothetical that I think is an unreasonable hypothetical … We did what we did.”

Giuliani took a tougher stance. “Absolutely the right thing to do,” the former mayor said, in an attempt to beef up his image as the candidate who will protect the nation in times of trouble. “It’s unthinkable that you would leave Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq and be able to fight the war on terror.”

McCain again portrayed himself as the candidate willing to buck his party. The Arizona senator had many good moments during the debate, as his party’s chief defender of the troop surge in Iraq and the immigration bill, which puts him at odds with most of the other candidates on stage. The audience gave him the cold shoulder during most of his answers on immigration, except when he reminded his opponents about the noncitizens fighting on behalf of the U.S. in Iraq and the number of Hispanics who died in Vietnam. “Remember that these are God’s children,” McCain said, garnering one of his biggest applause lines of the night.

McCain also scored during the town-hall section of the debate, when a woman in the audience told the candidates that her brother had been killed in Iraq. Walking to the edge of the stage, McCain offered his condolences and thanked her for her “endurance” and “sacrifice,” before offering up seemingly heartfelt defense of the current war strategy.

“I believe we have a strategy which can succeed so that the sacrifice of your brother would not be in vain, that a whole 20 million or 30 million people would have the chance to live a free life in open society,” McCain said. “If we fail, it will be a center of terrorism, and we will ask more young Americans to sacrifice, as your brother did.”

This was clearly not the first time McCain has had to answer such a question from a family member of the fallen. During his remarks, the camera twice cut back to the woman, who appeared genuinely moved. McCain's position may not be politically popular, but tonight, at least, he struck a chord.