A Punchless Republican Debate

At first, it looked like the GOP debate might be exciting. Ushered onto a stage set up in the massive Air Force One wing at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the 10 Republicans vying for their party's presidential nomination next year waved to the audience and then dashed to their podiums. There, blocked from bringing their own pen and pad into the debate, they scribbled frantically into paper provided by the library, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney lingering the longest over his notes.

Unfortunately, that may have been the most energetic moment of the evening, save for co-moderator John Harris's antic stage walks. For the most part, the contenders in the first GOP showdown of the nascent 2008 presidential campaign played it safe and stuck to their well-rehearsed scripts.

They jockeyed for Reagan's mantle—without engaging in much meaningful discussion of what parts of that legacy they liked, and what parts they didn't. They slammed President Bush for his conduct of the Iraq War—but were careful not to otherwise distance themselves too much from the leader of their party. And they barely criticized each other—honoring Reagan's fabled 11th commandment urging Republicans not to speak ill of one another. But in a debate featuring 10 candidates—seven of whom are barely known to the American public—the lack of combat didn't do much to help clarify voters' choices.

On Iraq, all of the candidates, with the exception of libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul, stuck with the president on the war to some degree. Sen. John McCain, the candidate perhaps most closely identified with the Bush-backed "surge," insisted he believed the war was now on the "right track," though he was careful to note—four times to be exact—that the war had been mismanaged.

Romney tried to reclaim ground he lost in recent comments on Osama bin Laden, when he insisted that it wasn't worth moving "heaven and earth" to search for just one man. (McCain last week blasted the remark as naive.) "He's going to pay, and he will die," Romney declared in the debate. McCain tried to top that, in perhaps the night's stranger moments. "We'll capture [bin Laden]. We will bring him to justice," McCain vowed, gesticulating forcefully and growing more intense by the second. "I will follow him to the gates of hell." Evidently proud of his answer, he then undercut the power of the moment with a staged and awkward grin.

On abortion, Rudy Giuliani seemed to stumble when he responded to a question about Roe v. Wade and whether it would be a good day if the decision were repealed. "It would be OK," he said—then said it would OK, too, if a judge upheld it as precedent. A few minutes later, the former mayor of New York tried to dispense with the legal nuances, announcing that he "hates abortion."

Debates are usually an opportunity for second-tier candidates to distinguish themselves from the field. But on Thursday night, none of the GOP hopefuls seized that opportunity. There was remarkably little criticism of the perceived front runners: McCain, Romney and Giuliani. You could almost feel the audience crying out for a Mike Gravel moment.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee at least had an opening. He had recently taken a shot at Romney, criticizing Romney's assertion that he would not let his faith influence his decisions in office. But asked about the criticism Thursday night, Huckabee backed off, saying he was critical of anyone who would suggest that faith doesn't play a role in daily decisions. Even firebrand Rep. Tom Tancredo, who is running mainly to promote tighter immigration controls, failed to engage McCain on the issue—an odd thing, since the two have clashed frequently on the subject.

The Republican Party is supposed to be in the midst of some serious soul-searching. Their president is wildly unpopular. They've lost control of Capitol Hill. There are serious cracks in the conservative coalition, as evangelicals, fiscal hawks, neocons and classic isolationists vie for primacy. It would be a good time to have an honest heart-to-heart about what's gone wrong and the best way forward. Oh, well. Some other night.