Thursday, November 29, 2007

Romney's Competition is Evolving

A fellow columnist recently commented that although the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries are only around the corner, we are light-years away in terms of how much things may change in the interim. This past week proved exactly that. The primary had seemed destined to be a duel between Romney and Giuliani, but it’s shaping up to be a four or five man race.

As I mentioned earlier this month, Huckabee has been making significant progress in Iowa and causing worry for Team Romney. Romney is dominating in New Hampshire, but with the Iowa contest being moved up to five days before New Hampshire’s primary, a Huckabee win could devastate Mitt’s early primary momentum. Such events are clearly more of a boon to Giuliani than to Huckabee; by weakening Romney it propels Giuliani to the February 5th victory he’s shooting for (unless Huckabee can continue his new momentum into other states), but Giuliani has some problems of his own.

While Romney and others have been hammering at Giuliani for his close relationship with Bernie Kerik, Ben Smith of The Politico uncovered some more potentially damning information about Giuliani just hours before yesterday’s three-ring circus YouTube/CNN Debate. Smith discovered records which have been recently released under the Freedom of Information Act that reveal how during the months leading up to 9/11 Rudy had been allocating tens of thousands of New York City tax payer dollars to finance his security detail during weekend trysts to the Hamptons.

Smith admits he lacks any concrete evidence to demonstrate these trips were specifically related to Giuliani’s affair with Ms. Nathan (his current wife), but the inference is fairly strong considering the proximity of her residence to the hotels he and his security detail stayed at, and the frequency of his trips to the area during this time. The most troubling part about these allegations is not that he spent the money on the security (New York’s mayors are allowed to have 24 hour security), it is that the expenses were split up between different city departments even though it had nothing to do with these departments or their functions.

Of course when this was brought up by Cooper Anderson at the YouTube/CNN debate Rudy insisted there was no wrongdoing and “as far as he knew” everything was accounted for correctly. This didn’t come up again in the debate and Rudy got a pass. The other candidates will likely wait for the media to hash this out before they get in the mix; this story is not going away without a fight.

Speaking of the debate, what a circus! Where do I begin? Anyone who watched the Democratic YouTube debate remembers how silly and ridiculous the debate was; but the Republican debate takes the cake. After suspecting foul play concerning a openly-gay brigadier-general’s political associations, the head editor of The Politico did a quick Google search and found out that not only was he a member of Veteran’s for Kerry, but currently sits on Hillary’s steering committee for LGBT issues. The general’s question about the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell' policy was obviously not aimed to foster conversation between the Republican candidates, but purely an effort to make them all look uncompassionate and bigoted. The media and blogosphere are on fire debating whether this is another Hillary ‘plant’ and whether YouTube and or CNN knew anything about it. There is no question CNN knew about this; you really think they would fly this guy out to Florida and hand him a microphone without looking into who he was. If you have any doubts, I remind you that it only took a short Google search to see who he supported and in what capacity.

Bloggers have also discovered (with little investigatory effort) that several other questioners from the debate were Democrats who openly support Democratic candidates. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have Democrats or moderates involved in the debate process; but these debates are for the party electorate. The partisan bashing has its place in the general election. This is a time for Republicans to hear the candidate talk about the issues they care about, otherwise it is really a waste of their time.

On the bright side, the quirky themes and questions kept the candidates on their toes and highlighted some weaknesses and strengths previously unnoticed within more conventional venues. Fred Thompson demonstrated his more serious side by looking fairly displeased about the debate throughout. As a contributor to the Weekly Standard noted, “My cheers went to a listless Fred Thompson who easily qualified himself to be president in my book by looking all night like he would cheerfully trade his left arm for an early exit off the stage to a waiting Scotch and good Cuban cigar.” It might have been even more impressive if one the candidates had confidently came out and called the debate what it was.

Instead, most of the candidates were in a rush to malign each other face to face. Romney and Giuliani went at it over immigration, Huckabee and Romney over immigration, and McCain and Romney over waterboarding (see a pattern developing?). Thompson went decidedly negative with his YouTube commercial by airing the only attack ad of the bunch. His video consisted of footage from Mitt’s younger liberal times at a Massachusetts debate against Ted Kennedy 13 years ago and another clip from Huckabee’s earlier tax hiking and portly days. Not surprising, Rudy was laughing harder than ever, escaping unscathed. Maybe Thompson has given up running for number one and is hoping Giuliani will pick him for number two. Just a thought.

The candidate who seemed surprisingly presidential was John McCain. Even though many conservatives tend to disagree with his views on immigration and interrogation techniques, his calm and rational approach to the questions and accusations raised seem to place him on the moral high ground. It’s hard to debate interrogation and torture with a guy who spent years in the Hanoi Hilton; but that doesn’t mean he’s always right.

Depending on the criteria (as winners and losers are hard to identify and for what reasons), the candidate who seemed to benefit most from the debate was Huckabee. With the hype surrounding him this past week he needed to step up to the plate and show he can play hardball with the big boys, and that is what he did. He didn’t necessarily come off as the best of the bunch, but he showed he can compete. Mitt fared well considering the beating he was taking from all sides, but there were times during the debate when he seemed frustrated. Thompson did fine, but ‘fine’ doesn’t win elections; it can win you a position as a running mate though. McCain did okay too, but nothing worthy of a significant shift in popularity. Giuliani got trampled; while he successfully eluded the expense report questions for the time being, they are sure to return. His exchanges with Romney further highlighted his weaknesses on conservative issues, and mere promises of constructivist judges will no longer placate conservatives after what they have seen Bush do with non-military government spending despite his constructionist nominations.

If an asterisk candidate were to be mentioned it would be Ron Paul. Paul did a fine job with what I thought would be a devastating question to his campaign. He was asked whether he believed all the conspiracy theories about the Council on Foreign Relations and the North American Union his supporters frequently mention. Most mainstream Republicans see Paul as a wild eyed extremist libertarian, but Paul’s answer came off as sincere and logical.

Paul replied that most of these theories are not conspiracy theories, but competing ideologies. He pointed to the well known fact that the CFR is real, and that there have been significant steps taken toward the formation of a North American Union through NAFTA and the prospect of the guest worker program. He compared the current state of affairs to the formation of the European Union, recognizing that its formation was incremental, not fully conceived from the start.

Paul’s message should resonate with many conservatives who are uncomfortable with losing our national sovereignty under globalist policies on immigration, our U.N. involvement, and a potential major international highway being built from Mexico City to Montreal. By framing his candidacy as an ongoing dialogue between those who favor national sovereignty over the rising tide of globalization, Paul did his movement a favor and got the message out to mainstream Republicans to consider.

As I tell many of my friends and colleagues who are surprised at my lack of disdain for the Texas congressman, to me, Ron Paul’s ideas are just a hundred steps too far in the right direction. His rejection of government intervention and spending are conservative principles, but it isn’t practical to do away with the Federal Reserve, IRS, and foreign deployment of troops overnight; but scaling down incrementally is.

In the end I think Ron Paul realizes this. He knows he’s not going to win. Not long ago I saw him in Manchester, NH at a well attended rally. As always he expressed his amazement at the support he is receiving. He never intended on winning; only to help shake up the debate. I hope he continues to do so.

So what does this all mean for Romney? That all will depend on how well Huckabee can keep up his current momentum in Iowa and whether Giuliani can weather the attacks currents against him. In my humble opinion, things are looking pretty good.


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