Finally, Fisticuffs

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007; 7:54 AM

It took an hour on that South Carolina stage, but there was an actual exchange of blows last night.

Mitt Romney vs. John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani vs. Ron Paul.

Romney said McCain-Kennedy (on immigration) would work about as well as McCain-Feingold (on campaign finance reform), and McCain punched back by saying he didn't change his positions in even-numbered years or in running for a different office. By the polite standards of the last debate, that was bloody.

Rudy landed a punch by challenging as absurd an assertion by Paul that we somehow invited the 9/11 attacks by bombing Iraq during the Clinton administration. That played to Giuliani's strength, but his target is a footnote in the race.

Still, I could hear the reporters suddenly banging on their laptops, and I wasn't even there.

In a larger sense, if Ron Paul doesn't win the nomination, we're heading for a real choice in 2008.

It was the mirror image of the Democratic debate in South Carolina last night, with nine of the 10 Republicans steadfastly backing the Iraq war. As Fox's Chris Wallace noted, 77 percent of GOPers disapprove of a timetable for withdrawal. But as Paul shot back, two thirds of the overall public "want us out of there."

The long-shot congressman stood alone. McCain said he'd be "the last man standing" in support of the war. Romney said the whole Middle East could be destabilized if we pulled out. Giuliani said that a group inspired by al Qaeda "were going to kill our military in cold blood at Fort Dix" (if only they hadn't tried to copy their jihadist videotape at Circuit City). Tom Tancredo said we would be in the region for a long time.

Well, they didn't bob or weave. The Republican Party is a proudly pro-war party. That may make sense in the context of the GOP primaries, but you don't need a doctorate in political science to know this will be a tough sell in a general election unless the situation in Iraq improves fairly soon.

Some other observations:

--How did Rudy turn a question on supporting abortion, gay rights, gun control and Mario Cuomo into an attack on Hillary Clinton and a swipe at the "liberal media"? The dodge was so transparent that Wallace asked the question again, and Giuliani, while acknowledging his pro-choice stance, cited George Will as a character witness.

On a later question, Rudy explained his pro-choice stance as one designed to "keep government out of people's personal lives"--an honest rationale but not a popular one in the GOP.

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