Transcript

Analyzing the Debate

Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com political blogger Chris Cillizza

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Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com Political Blogger
Friday, May 4, 2007; 10:00 AM

Chris Cillizza, washingtonpost.com's political blogger, was online Friday, May 4 at 10 a.m. ET to analyze and take your questions on Thursday night's debate between the Republican presidential contenders.

GOP Field United on War, Divided on Social Issues | Showtime in Simi Valley | Liveblogging at The Fix (Post, May 3)

The transcript follows.

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Chris Cillizza: Good morning everyone ... 10 candidates. 90 minutes. The first Republican presidential debate is in the books. I liveblogged the event last night at The Fix and am back this morning to answer your questions. Let's get to it.

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Irvington, N.Y.: Thank you for taking my question. I have not been able to find any reporting on the TV ratings for the Democratic presidential candidates' debate. I may be jumping to conclusions, but my guess is that percentage of households watching the debate was very small. I would imagine the same is true of last night's Republican debate. The post-debate spin (most notably coming from the Romney camp) leads to what perhaps is a cynical question; are these early debates about anything more then a candidate reinforcing his/her "presidential image" with their financial supporters?

Chris Cillizza: I haven't looked into the ratings either but I think it's safe to say the national audience is still rather small for these debates.

A major part of the debates then is aimed at building momentum and buzz among the insiders who pay attention to every move of the presidential race.
If Sen. John McCain had stumbled badly last night, which I don't think he did at all, it would have played into a story line that he has lost momentum and his candidacy is fading.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney's strong performance coupled with his top finish in the money chase over the first three months of the year likely will increase the insider buzz about him.

But, the key in all of these early debates -- especially for the frontrunners -- is to avoid making some sort of major mistake that their rivals can use against them in the months to come. At first glance no one seemed to make that sort of major slip-up.

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Germantown, Md.: I have to say after watching both debates, to me one person looked, sounded and acted the most presidential: Mitt Romney.

Chris Cillizza: I'll take any suggestions of who you thought "won" last night's debate.

Here's a vote for Romney....

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Allentown, Pa.: What was the final tally of the number of invocations of the name "Reagan"? Surely someone was keeping track. The candidates wedging the former President into every answer imaginable was almost farcical; I half expected them to start a chorus of "We love you Reagan, oh yes we do!" a la "Bye, Bye Birdie".

Chris Cillizza: It was amazing. I came into the debate expecting Reagan's name to come up frequently and was still taken aback by how often he was mentioned. In part that was because of the location -- Reagan's presidential library -- and the fact that his wife was sitting in the audience. But, it also speaks to the desire within the Republican Party to find the next Reagan rather than the next George W. Bush. Romney, stylistically, appeared to make a play for the most Reagan-esque -- sunny and optimistic about America's future.

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Tuckahoe, N.Y.: Good morning. I saw a lot of the debate last night, and because I'm not a Republican, I'm probably totally wrong. My feeling is nonetheless that I see no way that the cultural right, which is the base of the GOP, is going to believe Romney's spiritual conversion to anti-abortionism. It's too facile, and to my eyes, totally unconvincing. What's the insider's opinion on this?

Chris Cillizza: I just don't know. I think that in a vacuum Romney's conversion experience on abortion, which he detailed last night, is believable to social conservatives. After all, Reagan himself began his political career as pro-choice and ended it as one of the heroes of the pro-life movement.

I think where Romney gets into dangerous waters is that he has moved from less conservative from more conservative on a host of issues since deciding to run for president. His pledge that he was a lifelong hunter and then subsequent acknowledgment that he has only hunted small "varmints" on occasion speaks to the risky strategy of trying to be everything to everyone.

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Bethesda, Md.: How would you rate the debate questions? I thought Chris Matthews asking "Seriously, would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?" has to rate as the all time softball and waste-of-time question.

Chris Cillizza: I thought for the most part they were good. The reality is that the debate format -- 90 minutes for 10 candidates, no answers longer than 60 seconds -- made for a lively (some might say herky-jerky) debate.

I really liked Jim VandeHei asking questions sent in by viewers. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani looked like he might stumble when asked to explain the difference between Sunni and Shia but wound up getting it exactly right. I also liked when John Harris went back at Romney on the abortion question -- asking the governor whether it might not be seen as straight political opportunism for him to change his position.

More confrontation in these sorts of debates is usually better as it serves to clarify the positions of the candidates and test their mettle. I think we will see more back and forth between the ten on May 15 in South Carolina -- the second Republican debate.

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Brunswick, Ga.: Good morning Chris. Given John McCain's comments about Osama, shouldn't the follow-up question have been asked ... will you invade Pakistan to get him?

Chris Cillizza: To me, the attempts by Romney and McCain to out-tough-talk one another on finding Osama Bin-Laden were the most compelling moment of the night.

Romney was clearly aware that he has stepped in it a bit by saying last week that we shouldn't move "heaven and earth" to catch Bin-Laden. His "he is going to pay and he is going to die" line seemed a little too much for me. Then came McCain who one-upped Romney by promising to follow Bin-Laden "to the gates of hell." Wow.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: I thought McCain clearly won, and I don't really like McCain. Romney seemed very scripted and deliberate to me; almost shady. Will he say anything to get elected? Rudy, I don't know. I just don't see it. I think he came across really poorly.

Chris Cillizza: A vote for McCain....

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New York: "Would it be a good thing for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?" I have heard many idiotic questions in debates over the years, but this one takes the cake. It's even worse than Bernie Shaw's Kitty Dukakis question.

Chris Cillizza: Lots (and lots) of people didn't like this question.
I didn't hate it but the problem was that once Romney gave his "Are you kidding me" line it became clear that the question would be used to bash Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and nothing more. I could have done with just a few people answering it since after about two responses they all basically said the same thing.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Hi Chris. I thought Rudy didn't measure up. I just don't think he looked as presidential as many of the other men standing up there. However, what I really wonder is how his answers on abortion and the Terri Schiavo case will play within the Republican party. He was pretty clear that he thought that the Roe and the Schiavo cases were best handled by courts. What is your take on his answers?

Chris Cillizza: I thought there was way too much focus on social issues in the debate for Giuliani. His answer on whether it would be a good day when and if Roe vs. Wade was overturned ("It would be ok," he said) was noticeably out of step with the other nine candidates and perfectly symbolized the challenge before him in the race.

He is clearly more liberal than the average primary voter and has to hope that his reputation as a leader in the war on terror as well as a whole host of other domestic issues makes up for the fact in the eyes of voters.

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Washington, D.C.: I thought someone on National Review online summed it up well last night when they said that Romney seemed like an actor playing a presidential candidate. I (a Democrat, so my opinion may not count) thought Huckabee scored well. He came across as smart, kind of funny, likeable.

Chris Cillizza: I heard a lot of positive buzz for Huckabee last night too. I thought he came across as frank and genuine -- two keys for any successful politician.

As for Romney, I think most people thought he did well but there was clearly a strain of folks who thought he was too polished and too practiced. He didn't strike me that way -- except for the previously mentioned answer on Osama Bin-Laden.

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Boston: You thought that blip candidate Sen Gravel really hurt himself in the Dem debate ... and it turns out all he got from the debate was an incredible amount of coverage for a guy who hasn't been in politics since '81. Who do you think is the Gravel of the Republican campaign?

Chris Cillizza: Just to be clear, I didn't think Gravel hurt himself in the debate. There isn't much to hurt as he is an asterisk is almost every poll I've seen.
I pegged him as a "loser" in a post-debate Fix post because I thought he was angry, accusatory and mean spirited. He did get plenty of coverage as a result but to what end?

As for last night, I thought Rep. Ron Paul was clear, concise and consistent. I don't think it matters much but Paul clearly know who he is and what he believes.

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Anonymous: Why weren't the top questions from the Politico used? Was the Politico simply using readers in a dumb marketing stunt?

Chris Cillizza: That's a question for Politico, not me. I will say, however, that they used far more questions from viewers than I had seen in any previous major presidential debate, which I thought was a good thing.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Fred Thompson must be licking his chops watching the lukewarm reception all of the candidates received. When do you think he'll announce that he's running, and how long before he'll be running at the top in the polls. Are the Democrats scared that he'll enter?

Chris Cillizza: I don't think any of the candidates did anything last night to derail the likely candidacy of former Sen. Thompson. While I thought a number of the candidates on stage appeared presidential, Thompson's presence (or lack thereof) loomed in the room.

I thought it was interesting when Chris Matthews brought up Thompson's statement that Iran had already committed acts of war in a question and asked McCain whether he agreed. McCain avoided mentioning Thompson by name in his response and the former Tennessee Senator didn't come up again in the debate. I still hear that Thompson has not made a final decision on running but don't expect to hear anything for a few more months either way.

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College Park, Md.: My vote goes to Ron Paul. I understand that he is not polling very well, but he distinguished himself as the only candidate who said we should not have gone to war, our foreign policy must be drastically changed and government should serve to protect the privacy of its citizens. In short, he was a real conservative -- he supports government that is small and noninstrusive, not the current habeas corpus-suspending, phone-tapping, war-funding, and debt-expanding huge neoconservative government!

Chris Cillizza: The Paul train gets rolling...

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Washington: If Fred Thompson gets in, will he really be able to build an organization? Or will this just be a GOP version of Wes Clark, drafted into the race late because of unhappiness with the current field but unable to get off the ground?

Chris Cillizza: Good question and one I have been wondering myself.
In the days before Clark got into the race in 2004, he was widely cast as the only candidate who could derail Howard Dean. Polls showed him running strong and there appeared to be considerable energy for his candidacy. It turned out that his best day in the race was his first day. Clark flubbed early questions about how he would have voted on the Iraq war resolution and undermined his candidacy.

Thompson could follow in those footsteps though I don't think it's likely. He did spend eight years in the Senate and is a bit more of a polished and seasoned politician than Clark. But, once he gets in, he will be treated like any other candidate and will have to deal with the day in and day out rigors of running for president.

Can Thompson keep the buzz around him during the doldrums of August? We'll see.

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Boston: Mitt Romney will always look "presidential". If only he had been more than a three- to six-month governor and had actually shown leadership when he had the opportunity.

Chris Cillizza: I can't tell whether this is a vote for Romney as a winner or a loser last night...

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Reading, Mass.: Three of the ten GOP candidates do not believe in evolution. Did you find this surprising?

Chris Cillizza: As I was furiously typing last night, I looked up quickly when the evolution question was asked. I thought the fact that several candidates on stage didn't believe in evolution (or that's at least how it appeared to my eye) was probably worth a follow up question to two. As it was, McCain said he believed in evolution but then when hiking the Grand Canyon he couldn't help but feel that God's hand was in it as well.

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Anonymous: You said that Mayor Giuliani aced the Sunni/Shia question. What event in history was he referring to when he said "and then of course there was a slaughter of Shiites in the early part of the history of Islam, and it has infected a lot of the history of Islam, which is really very unfortunate"?

Chris Cillizza: I don't claim to be an expert on the history of the Sunni and Shia. In the coverage I watched following the debate, it appeared as though Giuliani was factually correct about the differences between the two groups.
That was all I was referencing. And, from a political standpoint, I think Giuliani dodged a major bullet with that question. I wonder how many of the ten men on that stage last night could have come up with something approximating a right answer on that question.

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Fairfax, Va.: Based on the comments so far, this must have been the most boring debate of the century (this and last century). No Republicans writing in to praise their candidate, no Democrats bashing anyone. Sounds like the candidates could draw straws and no one would quibble over the "winner" -- the winner who will be the loser unless something truly drastic happens between now and the election.

Chris Cillizza: These early debates for each side tend to be less newsy.
All of the candidates are a bit nervous and as a result stick to their prepared lines too much in order to avoid making any sort of major gaffe. While the first debates of the presidential election draw a lot of attention because they are the first, I think there is a lot more potential for fireworks in later debates.

I'm headed down to South Carolina on May 15 for the second Republican debate because I think that one could be a bit more of a knockdown drag-out affair.
Democrats are set to gather again in early June in New Hampshire.

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Tampa, Fla.: Do you expect the religious right to vote for a Mormon? Edward Land, head politico of the Southern Baptists, recently said enough of his people would stay home on election day if Rudy were the nominee to pretty much guarantee a Dem victory, even if it meant Hillary in the White House. Although they will not admit it, most of the religious right would not accept a non-Christian President, and they certainly do not considers Mormons to Christians. I cannot see Romney winning in South Carolina, Florida, or any other state where the religious right is the backbone of the GOP. And if he does win the nomination, I cannot see enough religious right support to put him over the top against any Democratic candidate.

Chris Cillizza: It's hard to know how big an issue Romney's Mormonism will be with caucus and primary voters. To date, Romney has focused on the fact that he is a person of faith like the majority of Americans. Last night he noted that while voters want a person of faith they don't care what particular package that faith comes in.

We'll see. The question for Romney is whether any of his opponents (or an outside group) make telephone calls or send direct mail solicitations detailing some of the more controversial aspects of Mormonism to primary voters. There is a skepticism about Mormonism in the country -- in polls I've seen roughly 25 percent of voters say they would not vote for a Mormon for president -- and Romney must continue to work to insulate himself from attacks on his religion that are sure to come.

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Pasadena, Calif.: Love your coverage Chris, love these chats. Six-hundred-pound gorilla in the room: Playing up Reagan seemed the obvious thing to do, but do you think any of these people have any clue as to how to deal with the, um, legacy being bequeathed to them by George W?

Chris Cillizza: It's a very fine line that all of these candidates have to walk.
On the one hand, expressing support for President Bush's surge in Iraq makes sense because most conservative Republicans -- those most likely to vote in primaries and caucuses -- still support the policy.

On the other, none of these candidates wants to be seen as the Bush heir in the race if they wind up becoming the nominee.

The challenge for every Republican candidate is to offer enough praise for Bush that it doesn't turn off those voters still supportive of the president while offering enough criticism of his policies that people know that they would follow a different course in the White House. A very tough proposition.

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Washington, D.C.: I am more impressed with Romney the more I hear him. I however have a major problem with the Republicans, and again last night it came up. Several years ago my mother died and I had to make a very difficult decision to take her off life support. Terry Schiavo came up during the debate, I don't want government getting into a personal decision.

Chris Cillizza: Romney...

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washingtonpost.com: Folks, I've got to run...busy day today. For more of my thoughts on the winners and losers from last night's debate, make sure to check the Fix later this afternoon. Thanks for spending the hour with me and have a great weekend. Chris

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