Okay, so there was no theological smackdown at the GOP presidential debate this afternoon in Iowa. This face-off was probably the most stilted event of the campaign so far. The questions from Carolyn Washburn, the editor of the Des Moines Register were mostly predictable and rarely probing. (In thirty seconds, state how would you better American education.) Consequently, not much happened.
There were no fireworks. No candidate went after another. (In one humorous aside, Fred Thompson said to Mitt Romney that he was getting pretty good at Thompson's own trade: acting.) The sniping over religion that had erupted between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney was not continued. Washburn did not ask Huckabee about a widely noted remark he made asking if Mormons believe Jesus and Satan were brothers. Rudy Giuliani may have only referred to 9/11 once. (A record?) Romney looked grand and smooth and spoke eloquently about education accomplishments in Massachusetts when he was governor of the state; John McCain touted his years of service and involvement in national security matters, and looked old. Huckabee explained that his faith caused him to believe that all citizens deserve access to good health care and decent education. No one won; no one lost.
That may be good news for Huckabee. Though he has jumped into the lead in Iowa, no one was gunning for him (except fringe candidate Alan Keyes, who inexplicably had been invited to participate in the debate). So Huckabee pranced through the encounter no worse for the wear. And Romney, the previous leader in the Hawkeye State, remains within striking distance of Huckabee.
There were only a few interesting moments in the 90-minute-long session. Two involved Thompson. When Washburn asked the candidates to raise their hands if they believed human-induced global warming is a threat Thompson said he wasn't going to engage in any "hand-shows." The rest of the pack followed suit. Thompson declared he would only answer the question if given a minute to do so. Given that Thompson in a radio commentary last March mocked people concerned with global warming and made comments suggesting he was a global warming denier, his refusal to agree with this basic statement was suspicious.
Then when the subject of the debate turned to the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that reported Iran in 2003 discontinued a secret nuclear weapons program, Thompson indicated that he didn't accept the NIE and said that a U.S. president ought to rely more on British or Israeli intelligence then the U.S. intelligence community. A "president cannot let a piece of paper by a bureaucrat determine solely what his action is going to be," Thompson insisted. But that was a rather inaccurate description of an NIE. Such a document is not a report dashed off by one bureaucrat; it is the consensus document of the intelligence establishment, which is made up of sixteen different agencies. It can be wrong (as was the sloppy and hastily-compiled NIE on Iraq's WMDs). But Thompson's eagerness to belittle the intelligence system of the government he seeks to head might be considered troubling by voters looking for a president who will resist the I-know-best urge when deciding national security policy. But with Thompson's campaign sputtering, his skepticism toward the Iran NIE and global warming is not a pressing matter.
Minutes after the debate ended, a Thompson campaign email landed in reporters' inboxes that slammed Romney for helping to create a health care program in Massachusetts that covers abortions for a small copayment. The subject head: "Romney -- $50 Abortions in Massachusetts." The Thompson campaign is probably hoping for some viral action on this missive.
This email was a reminder. Though the candidates played nice on the stage during the debate, they still have plenty of time to throw muddy iceballs at each other before Iowa caucus goers gather on January 3.