Showtime in Simi Valley

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007 7:34 AM

John McCain must have had an extra bowl of Wheaties. I've watched him in dozens of situations -- he's usually discursive and conversational -- and his delivery has never been punchier. He was tough on Iraq, on Iran, said he would follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, and kept vowing to veto pork.

Rudy Giuliani mentioned Ronald Reagan early and often, his great sense of optimism, and mentioned at every conceivable opportunity (and even some far-fetched ones) that he had reduced crime in New York.

Mitt Romney invoked Reagan nearly as often, as a president of strength, and with his gleaming hair looked like a leader from Hollywood's old central casting. In fact, he almost looked too perfect.

The front-runners all started strong. Then they got to abortion.

When Chris Matthews barked out the question -- should Roe be repealed? -- everyone barked "yes" until Rudy said nonchalantly, "it'd be okay." But it would be equally okay, he said, if a strict constructionist judge viewed the ruling as precedent. Moments later, Giuliani said that "I hate abortion," but that public funding should be up to the states and, all right, he supported such funding in New York.

Matthews later went back at Giuliani a third time, and this time there was no stutter-step: It's a difficult issue of conscience, but Giuliani said he respects a woman's right to choose, knowing full well that most Republican primary voters disagree.

Romney dealt with a flip-flop question on abortion by . . . invoking Reagan. Romney changed his mind from being pro-choice, and so did Reagan, and so did Bush 41.

McCain, who has been consistently against abortion, did not get pressed on the issue and but was accused of flopping on the Bush tax cuts, which he now wants to extend. He turned the question into an attack on spending.

One thing was striking: Until a final question about Bush, there were as many mentions of Imus (negatively invoked by Sam Brownback) as of George W. (McCain said he was working with the president on immigration). Reagan was invoked with almost religious fervor in his Simi Valley library, but not the incumbent. That spoke volumes.

Matthews and his colleagues from Politico.com spent quite a bit of time on social issues -- everyone on the stage opposed embryonic stem cell research, except McCain and Giuliani -- because that's where the GOP divisions are. Those issues barely came up at last week's Democratic debate.

And what was up with that question about whether Bill Clinton should be able to live in the White House again? In fact, Matthews spewed out so many questions as time went on that the whole affair was like speed-dating.

"No matter the candidates, no matter the party, Chris Matthews will always have the last word," Keith Olbermann said afterward.

And how.

Some MSM leads, starting with the L.A. Times:

"Sharing a stage for the first time, the 10 Republican presidential hopefuls alternated between tough talk and optimism Thursday night as they wrapped themselves in the conservative mantle of the party's patron saint and their spiritual host, Ronald Reagan.

"Invoking the name of the nation's 40th president nearly 20 times -- and mostly ignoring the current occupant of the White House -- the contestants repeatedly faulted the direction of Washington under GOP rule, and promised change."

Boston Globe: "The 10 declared Republican candidates for president introduced themselves to the nation last night in their first debate of the 2008 campaign season, displaying sharp differences over social issues, immigration, and the pursuit of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as they sought to make a strong first impression with voters.

"Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani struggled to clearly articulate his position on abortion. Arizona Senator John McCain reiterated his support for staying in Iraq but offered sharp criticism of the Bush administration's conduct of the war. And Mitt Romney, in his national coming-out party of sorts, delivered a largely comfortable, confident performance that left his advisers beaming."

NYT: "The 10 Republican presidential candidates each endorsed a muscular approach to foreign policy and national security last night, with several invoking Ronald Reagan as a model for staring down Iran on nuclear weapons and remaining resolute on Iraq until it was more stable.

"On social issues dear to conservative Republicans, who are a dominant force in some early nominating primaries, two candidates -- former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York City and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts -- found themselves treading carefully as they explained their positions on abortion. Mr. Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, appeared to struggle with the issue, joining the other nine in saying he would not oppose overturning the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. But later he endorsed a woman's right to make a decision on whether to have an abortion."

New York Post: "2007 -- Rudy Giuliani portrayed himself as the heir to Ronald Reagan at the first Republican debate last night, talking tough on terrorism - but struggling to present a clear and consistent position on abortion."

Some insta-reactions on the right:

Jonah Goldberg: "I'm sorry but Romney still comes across like a well-cast actor in a movie of the week about a guy running for president."

Rich Lowry: "This might . . . the night when Rudy stopped being solely the hero of 9/11 and started being a presidential candidate like everyone else. It was inevitable at some point."

Andrew Sullivan: "The good news is that they all understand that the Iraq war has been a disaster in terms of execution. No one defended Bush's handling of it - who can? - but McCain's strong criticism of a 'badly mismanaged' war gave him the edge in my book. McCain was easily the strongest on spending (although, of course, my softest spot on that front was for Ron Paul). He also forthrightly supported evolution which puts him in the ranks of sane Republicans . . .

"I have to say I found Romney smarmy beyond even my expectations. The man will obviously say and do anything to get power or please a crowd. His low-point: 'Gosh, I love America.' Really? Giuliani is simply not a very impressive speaker or debater, and his chilling call for a tamper-proof I.D. card for all immigrants sent shivers up my spine. His ability to defend abortion rights was, however, impressive if only because it required offending someone."

Red State's Erick Erickson: "John McCain won. Let's not dance around this. Mitt Romney shined, he stood out, he did well. Rudy Giuliani imploded. Rudy totally and utterly self-destructed tonight. He had many chances to get in good with the core base of Republican voters and ignored every moment.

"But McCain cuisine reigned supreme. He served up a dish of anger, a willingness to criticize, and a desire to fight -- hard."

Erick also had words for the moderator: "Matthews has asked some of the most worthless questions of any debate moderator ever . . . Please notice that the Democrats ran and hid from Fox News and the GOP has graciously subjected itself to a moderator who was grew up in politics as a partisan Democratic political hack and a network that airs Keith Olbermann."

Polling alert! Possible CW shift! Power Line's Paul Mirengoff offers a pro-Rudy spin:

"A new set of polls by the American Research Group shows Giuliani trailing McCain by 26-19 in Iowa; trailing McCain and Romney by 29-24-17 in New Hampshire; and trai[n]ing McCain 36-23 in South Carolina.

"One way these results might be reconciled is by noting that McCain and Romney have been focused forever (or so it seems) on these early states, while Giuliani is a relative newcomer in them."

In the New York Sun, Ryan Sager doesn't sugarcoat it for Rudy:

"Compared to Quinnipiac's last national poll in February, Mr. Giuliani fell to 27% from 40% -- a huge tumble. Mr. Romney barely budged, going to 8% from 7%. Mr. McCain also barely budged, going to 19% from 18%. And Mr. Thompson burst onto the scene, coming in at 14%, having not been included in the last poll (and, as usual, stealing third place from Mr. Romney, despite not having lifted a finger).

"So, the bad news for Mr. Giuliani is obvious: a big tumble, and the appearance that it has been caused almost entirely by Mr. Thompson stealing a big chunk of his support out from under him. The bad news for Mr. Romney is equally obvious: that he's being overshadowed by a guy who's not even in the race. As for the good news for Mr. Thompson: He's doing great for a guy not doing anything."

On the Democratic side, Dick Polman gives the governor of New Mexico a failing grade:

"Let us rebuke '08 president candidate Bill Richardson for flunking an important history test . . . When asked to name a Supreme Court justice whom he would regard as a model for future nominees, Richardson invoked Byron 'Whizzer' White. Many liberals didn't like that answer, because it turns out that Whizzer dissented on Roe v. Wade, arguing against legal abortion.

"Flash forward to the weekend, when Richardson showed up at the annual California Democratic convention. He was asked by reporters about Whizzer, and he replied: 'White was in the 60s. Wasn't Roe v. Wade in the 80s?'

"There are a few problems with that answer. First, it was clear that Richardson didn't even know how his ideal high court judge had voted in one of the most important legal rulings of the 20th century. And, second, he didn't even know when that ruling was handed down. (It was 1973, not "the '80s.) I argued a few weeks ago that it was no big deal when candidates flunked the price of a gallon milk. I'd argue here that it's a bigger deal when a candidate flunks basic contemporary history."

With Fred Thompson getting all this good press without actually running, Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum is puzzled:

"Thompson is a guy whose political record in the Senate was a big zero; whose only real claim to fame is being a character actor on TV and in films; who has done nothing to distinguish himself this year except deliver a few vaguely Reaganesque pastiches in a nice baritone; who is apparently not Christian enough for James Dobson's taste; who has no known issues that he really cares deeply about; and whose most famous quality is his laziness.

"That sure doesn't sound like the resume of a guy who's going to rescue the Republican Party to me. The fact that so many people are talking him up seems like it says more about the suicidally desperate state of the GOP than it does about the actual presidential prospects of Fred Thompson."

At Right Wing News, John Hawkins, who advises Duncan Hunter, says: "Look at it from Fred Thompson's perspective. He has a reputation as a guy who doesn't particularly enjoy campaigning and let's face it: he has a pretty good life. He has a successful career as an actor, lots of money, and probably a good bit of leisure time to spend in a nice house with his attractive wife.

"So, yes, he's dipping his toes in the water to see what it feels like and, yes, the water feels warm and inviting, but running for president is anything but a glamorous, exciting job, especially for someone like Fred Thompson.

"Running for president means that you spend six to eighteen months with every 15 minutes of your 6 day a week, 12 hour plus schedule per day mapped out by staffers. It means thousands of calls to friends and admirers to ask them for money. It means constant travel. It means you need to enjoy plunging into a crowd and shaking hands for 20 minutes, talking to people at a rural mall, and sitting around in a diner in Iowa eating mashed potatoes and signing autographs. Meanwhile, during those 18 months or so, the press and your political enemies will be combing through your background and every word you say looking for a way to utterly destroy your reputation. Then, even after all that, only one candidate out of what, about 20 on both sides, is going to win the election?"

I thought I'd seen every possible issue in a presidential campaign, but Greg Sargent finds a new one:

"Trust me, you've never heard anything quite like Rudy Giuliani's rant about ferrets. It's much, much worse than you all can imagine . . . in Vanity Fair's profile of Rudy Giuliani . . . Rudy is quoted unloading on a ferret owner on his radio show as Mayor in the 1990s. VF quotes a few lines of Rudy's startling rant, then moves on.

"But the sheer demented nature of Rudy's diatribe is only appreciable if you read the whole thing from beginning to end. How do I know this? I was listening to Rudy on the radio on that day in 1999 when he went off on the ferret owner.

" This conversation is over, David. Thank you. [Mr. Giuliani cuts him off.] There is something really, really, very sad about you. You need help. You need somebody to help you. I know you feel insulted by that, but I'm being honest with you. This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness.

"I'm sorry. That's my opinion. You don't have to accept it. There are probably very few people who would be as honest with you about that. But you should go consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and have him help you with this excessive concern, how you are devoting your life to weasels.

[snip]

"You need help! And please get it! And you don't have the right to call here at three o'clock in the morning, harass the people on my staff, because of your compulsion."

Hugh Hewitt is ticked off about the military's crackdown on soldiers blogging:

"The Army unilaterally disarmed itself, and appeared to do so in a sudden spasm. Hopefully its senior leadership will see the reaction and immediately suspend the new policy pending a thorough review that includes milbloggers, civilian information specialists, and military strategists and historians. The American military has never been in a war like this before, and it cannot possibly think it has the expertise to judge the importance of this troops-to-the-homefront information flow. Maintaining public support of the effort through the truthful accounts of the troops' lives, or losing that support via the same, is a core value of the milbloggers."

Doesn't this sound rather . . . Clintonesque?

"Tony Blair is to become a roving ambassador in Africa and the Middle East when he leaves Downing Street in an attempt to rebuild his tarnished reputation.

"The Daily Telegraph can disclose that the Prime Minister is to spurn the chance to earn up to £10 million a year on the international lecture circuit by concentrating on raising money for his new Blair Foundation, which will fund humanitarian work in Africa."

And here is an inside look at Don Imus gearing up to sue CBS.

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