Telling Moments from the GOP Debate: Romney Freezes, Rudy Slashes, McCain Shines

| Thu Nov. 29, 2007 1:26 AM EST

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Wednesday night's CNN/YouTube Republican debate contained no Hillary Moment--that is, no time when a leading candidate muffed an answer in a manner that created an opportunity for the others to pile on. (Remember Clinton's triple-reverse answer to that question about issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants?) But this latest face-off did produce telling moments.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had the most difficult ones. He froze more than once--which is odd, considering he's had ample opportunity to ready himself for this Republican Party-sponsored debate. In one video query, a fellow named Joseph from Dallas held up a Bible and said, "How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book? Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand, do you believe this book?" The question first went to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He seemed unsure of how to start, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who was ordained as a Baptist minister, quipped, "Do I need to help you out, Mayor, on this one?" Giuliani recovered quickly and offered the obvious answer: It's "the greatest book ever written....I read it frequently," some parts are "allegorical," some are "meant to be interpreted in a modern context."

Then came Romney's turn. "I believe," he said, "the Bible is the word of God, absolutely." CNN's Anderson Cooper reminded him of the question: "Does that mean you believe every word?" Romney stuttered: "You know--yes, I believe it's the word of God, the Bible is the word of God." He then repeated that answer twice and said, "I don't disagree with the Bible." In other words, he stumbled through a question about the Holy Book. When Huckabee fielded the question, he handled it, naturally, with natural aplomb: "As the only person here on the stage with a theology degree, there are parts of it I don't fully comprehend and understand, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite god, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it. If they do, their god is too small." For any social conservatives who care about a candidate's relation to the Bible, Huckabee had slammed Romney.

Later in the debate, Romney hit another bad spot in an exchange during which Senator John McCain shined. A college student from Seattle named Andrew offered this question: "Senator McCain has come out strongly against using waterboarding as an instrument of interrogation. My question for the rest of you is, considering that Mr. McCain is the only one with any firsthand knowledge on the subject, how can those of you sharing the stage with him disagree with his position?" Romney went first: "I do not believe that as a presidential candidate, it is wise for us to describe precisely what techniques we will use in interrogating people. I oppose torture. I would not be in favor of torture in any way, shape or form." It was a non-answer, and Cooper pressed him: "Is waterboarding torture?" Romney repeated himself: "I don't think it's wise for us to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use."

McCain moved in:

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MCCAIN: Well, Governor, I'm astonished that you haven't found
out what waterboarding is.

ROMNEY: I know what waterboarding is, Senator.

MCCAIN: Then I am astonished that you would think such a -- such
a torture would be inflicted on anyone in our -- who we are held captive and anyone could believe that that's not torture. It's in violation of the Geneva Convention. It's in violation of existing law. And, Governor, let me tell you, if we're going to get the high
ground in this world and we're going to be the America that we have cherished and loved for more than 200 years. We're not going to torture people. We're not going to do what Pol Pot did. We're not going to do what's being done to Burmese monks as we speak. I suggest that you talk to retired military officers and active duty military officers like Colin Powell and others, and how in the world anybody could think that that kind of thing could be inflicted by Americans on people who are held in our custody is absolutely beyond me.

People in the auditorium cheered. Romney stuck to his talking points, reiterating that he does not favor torture but will not say "what is and what is not torture." McCain fired back that Romney would then "have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva Conventions" because under that agreement waterboarding is considered torture. McCain added, "I would hope that we would understand, my friends, that life is not 24 and Jack Bauer....This is a defining issue and, clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America." More applause. McCain had come across looking committed and principled. Romney had appeared tethered to an index-card response.

Minutes later, Romney was tripped up by a question about a statement he had once made. After retired Brigadier General Keith Kerr, an openly gay man who apparently is working with the Hillary Clinton campaign, posed a question about gays and lesbians in the military, Cooper noted that in 1994 Romney had said he looked forward to the day when homosexuals could serve "openly and honestly in our nation's military." Anderson then asked the former Massachusetts governor, "Do you stand by that?"

Romney should have been well prepared. He wasn't:

ROMNEY: This is not that time. We're in the middle of a war. The people who have...

COOPER: Do you look forward to that time, though, one day?

ROMNEY: I'm going to listen to the people who run the military
to see what the circumstances are like....

COOPER: So, just so I'm clear, at this point, do you still look
forward to a day when gays can serve openly in the military or no
longer?

ROMNEY: I look forward to hearing from the military exactly what
they believe is the right way to have the right kind of cohesion and support in our troops and I listen to what they have to say.

People in the audience booed at this point--though it was unclear which Romney position they were booing. While Romney had earlier been able to explain his reversal on abortion (from pro-choice to pro-life), he was unable to say what had caused him to switch regarding gays in the military. In fact, he looked flummoxed by what was an obvious question. It was very un-CEO-like.

Representative Ron Paul had a revealing moment. When asked by a YouTuber if he believes--as does some of his followers--that the Council on Foreign Relations is part of a secret conspiracy to merge the United States with Canada and Mexico, he did not say, "No way, Jose." Instead, he noted that there is "a move on toward a North America Union, just like early on there was a move on for a European Union" and that "they" don't talk about it. He cited Nafta and a "Nafta highway." The problem: the Nafta highway is a myth. So Paul continues on as the black helicopter candidate. Later in the debate, Paul referred to "the people in the north" of Iraq and called them Shia, not Kurds.

Giuliani, who (by his standards) barely mentioned 9/11, had his red-meat moment when he advocated cutting 5 to 10 percent from the budget of every federal agency. Would that meaning cutting back on consumer safety, education, environmental protection programs? Presumably. Giuliani didn't address the consequences of such slashing.

Giuliani didn't pander every chance he got. Asked about gun control, he said he backed the notion that individuals (as opposed to members of militias) have the right to possess guns but the government has the right to impose "reasonable" though limited regulations. Audience members hissed. Yet when GIuliani said he would not sign a bill imposing a federal ban on abortion, there were scattered applause.

Former Senator Fred Thompson put in a competent though hardly inspiring performance. But he serve up a head-scratcher of an answer to a question from Texan Leroy Brooks, who asked if the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism or of Southern heritage. "I know that everybody who hangs the flag up in their room like that is not racist," Thompson responded. "I also know that for a great many Americans it's a symbol of racism....As far as a public place is concerned, I am glad that people have made the decision not to display it as a prominent flag...at a state capitol." So far, so good. Then Thompson added, "As a part of a group of flags or something of that nature, you know, honoring various service people at different times in different parts of the country, I think that's different." So it's not kosher to fly the flag over a state capitol, but it's fine to hoist it among a group of other flags to honor soldiers who fought to divide the Union and protect slavery?

Despite these particular moments, the debate is unlikely to shift voter sentiment. No one soared, no one flopped--though Romney came closest to the latter. The debate opened with sharp bickering between him and Giuliani on the immigration issue. But there was not as much R-on-R violence as there could have been. One surprise: few of the candidates bothered to attack Huckabee, who's surging in Iowa. The intra-party punching already occurring (Romney vs. Giuliani, Thompson vs. Huckabee) will now continue away from the hot lights of the debate stage.

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