The most memorable moment in last night’s Republican presidential debate came when the candidates were asked about Roe v. Wade. One after another, everyone said what a great day it will be when Roe is overturned. Then came Rudy Giuliani’s turn.
“It would be okay,” he said, almost shrugging.
As Chris Matthews pressed him into elaborating that he’d leave it to a judge to determine whether it’s appropriate to overturn precedent, the fundamental dilemma of the Giuliani candidacy was on full display. A Republican can’t win without making peace with the pro-life movement. But Giuliani can’t campaign as a pro-lifer without being rightly pilloried as an opportunistic flip-flopper. And while promising not to make Roe a litmus test is regular ritual in general elections, Giuliani actually means it: He’ll appoint judges who would probably overturn Roe, but he’s not going to make it a priority.
There’s something refreshing about a politician who can’t muster the energy to care about abortion. There’s nothing strange about not feeling strongly about abortion, after all; it’s an unpleasant topic that lots of people would rather not think too much about. But lots of other people care deeply about abortion and the constellation of related issues, and those people make up an important voting bloc in primary elections on both sides of the aisle. Republicans get a little more leeway than Democrats on this; while all the major contenders for the Democratic nomination felt compelled to denounce the Supreme Court decision last month that upheld the Partial Birth Abortion Act, there was a split over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research on the stage last night (McCain, like Giuliani, is for it). Giuliani is testing just how far that leeway goes.
Most observers seem to agree that the debate was bad for Giuliani. To the extent that there was a winner, it was probably Mitt Romney, who looked and sounded like a credible contender in a forum where many candidates did not. But the format made it hard for anyone to really shine. With ten men on stage, the debate quickly devolved into a cacophony, with the candidates often brushing aside questions to talk about unrelated topics — a defensible strategy, given how inane some of the questions were. (When Chris Matthews asked if it would be good to have Bill Clinton living in the White House again, Romney had his best moment: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”) Fred Thompson’s horde of blogging fans are, predictably, declaring him the winner for staying out of the fray. It’s true that a late-entry strategy may yet pay off. But it’s hard to believe that many people watched this debate and concluded that Republicans just don’t have enough choices.
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