You could almost hear them yawning. The pundits and prognosticators paid to talk endlessly about politics had little else to say. After an hour-and-a-half on stage in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Thursday night, the six leading Republican candidates for president had produced no fireworks, no slapfests, no real "news."
In a narrow sense, the chattering classes were right--nothing changed over the course of those 90 minutes. Mitt Romney didn't short-circuit; Mike Huckabee didn't levitate. But what we got instead what just as interesting--and probably more informative. After a one-two primary punch in Iowa and New Hampshire that only muddled an already confusing contest, the Republican race now looks more like a Rubik's Cube than a chessboard--a cluster of regional competitions with different contestants who each have different objectives, all moving at once.
Consider Thursday's Dixieland debate a sneak peek at the dynamics that will define the next three weeks. Facing a burst of make-or-break primaries in three wildly dissimilar states--Michigan on Jan. 15; South Carolina on Jan. 19 and Florida on Jan. 29--the candidates revealed exactly how they expect to survive until Tsunami Tuesday on Feb. 5.
Take Fred Thompson. After disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, the former Tennessee senator has one hope left: South Carolina, the first primary held below the Mason-Dixon line. Which is why he awoke from the stupor he calls campaigning to spend much of the night unloading on Mike Huckabee, who currently leads there by an average of five points. "On the one hand you have the Reagan Revolution of limited government and strong national security," said Thompson in response to a question about whether the 'Reagan coalition' still exists. "On the other hand you have the direction that Gov. Huckabee would take us in."
Thompson then fired off several rounds of ammo, linking Huckabee's comments on the Bush administration's "arrogant bunker mentality" to the "Blame America First" crowd before slamming the former Arkansas governor on taxes, Guantanamo, education and his support for a national smoking ban. "That's the model of the Democratic party," he concluded. It was the night's most aggressive assault (made doubly delicious by Thompson's down-home delivery). Expect Fred to keep it coming in the Palmetto State over the next eight days--even if it is too little, too late.
For his part, Huckabee fought a two-front war. Unlike Thompson, he's competitive in South Carolina and Michigan--but thanks to different constituencies. In South Carolina, it's the state's sizable evangelical vote keeping him in the hunt. So even though Huckabee feigned offense at a question about his Baptist faith, he answered with aplomb. "I'm not the least bit ashamed of my faith," he said. "I'm certainly going to practice it unashamedly whether I'm a president or not a president." Cue the night's biggest applause.
For Michiganers, Huckabee stressed his populist economic policies, refusing to apologize for growing the government in Arkansas and returning to his "little guy" roots whenever possible. "A lot of people are working harder this year than they worked two years ago," he said. "Even if they're making more money, they're not making enough money to keep up." Despite some forced foreign-policy moments--he cited his "nine trips" to Israel as international experience, and didn't really sell a line about seeing Iranian aggressors at the "gates of hell"--Huckabee gave a smooth, if somewhat defensive, performance.
Huckabee can survive a loss in Michigan, but Mitt Romney probably can't. The former Massachusetts governor was born and bred in the Wolverine State, and after early, unexpected losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, he needs to win one of the main events (sorry, Wyoming) if he hopes to salvage his sinking bid. At Thursday's debate, that meant a message focused almost entirely on the economy--and John McCain, who won the state in 2000. "Could we be headed for a recession?" Romney said, right out of the gate. "Absolutely. Do we have to be headed for a recession? Absolutely not." Then came the kicker: "Sen. McCain recently said that some of the jobs that have left Michigan are never coming back. I disagree. I'm going to fight for every single job--Michigan, South Carolina, every state in this country."
It was Romney the Reaganesque optimist vs. McCain the "Can't Do" insider. Shifting the spotlight away from social conservatism, which he's emphasized for much of his bid, Romney now campaigns as an outsider biz-whiz bent on "changing" government. "My whole life has been about bringing change," he said. "I will change Washington. I will take it apart and put it back together simpler and smaller." Some people, Romney hinted, were "too Washington" for such "change." After tonight, there's no doubt whom Romney sees as his main rival in Michigan. But his effort, though solid, was likely too glancing to brake McCain's momentum.
McCain may have delivered the least polished or powerful performance of the assembled candidates, and yet he emerged as he entered: the closest thing to a Republican frontrunner. In addition to Romney's swipes, McCain brushed off barbs from Rudy Giuliani (I also supported the Iraq surge) and Fred Thompson (I disagree with your immigration plan)--both of which began with the phrase "my friend" and ended nearly as benignly. McCain is respected among his Republican rivals, and if Thursday was any indication, he'll likely arrive in Michigan and South Carolina unscathed. The Arizona senator already leads in the latest local polls, so expect him to continue to spotlight his support of the surge, which plays well in military-heavy South Carolina, and even emphasize the (gasp!) environment. Asked Thursday about the Reagan coalition, McCain mentioned Teddy Roosevelt and global warming--references that had more to do with winning over the Independents and Democrats who can vote in the coming contests than appealing to any remaining Reaganatics.
Giuliani's strategy? Sit back and relax until Florida and Feb. 5. In fact, he was the only candidate who'd purchased national ad time on FOX News; a spot promising massive tax cuts ran during the first commercial break. And Ron Paul was used mostly as a punching bag. "Please could I participate in the current debate?" Paul said after a FOX moderator demanded, irrelevantly, that he tell "9/11 Truthers" to stop supporting his bid. As a strategy for surviving the upcoming blitz, it was as good as any.