At the height of the McCain-is-on-the-verge-of-dropping-out talk, I argued that once the intensity of the anger over the immigration bill died down, and the conversation shifted to Iraq, McCain would have an opening to recover, especially because he was facing lower expectations. I think we saw that tonight. Most of the immigration fight was between Rudy and Romney, and when the debate shifted to Iraq, McCain’s emphatic rejoinder to Romney, by saying the surge isn’t “apparently” working, it is working, was strong. For months now, the McCain camp has been trying to draw a distinction with Romney, who is hedging his support for the war in Iraq, giving himself some wiggle room to argue for a pullout down the road. McCain got his oppourtunity tonight. Also, the low expectations. In the earlier debates–especially during the immigration battle–the other candidates teed off on McCain. But in this debate, they went out of their way to compliment him, because he wasn’t seen as a threat. I still believe that McCain has angered too many conservatives in recent years to ultimately win the nomination, but his strong debate performance tonight shows that he’s a survivor who isn’t going anywhere. And while his position in the Senate was a liability during the immigration debate, because he was actively pushing for legislation that conservatives opposed, it will be an asset in the coming weeks during the debate about Iraq, when he is fighting passionately on their side.
As for Giuliani, I thought he had another solid performance, which probably won’t affect his standing one way or another. He had a series of strong answers, but none of the memorable moments that he had in the earlier debates. The debate enabled him to defend himself against a lot of the issues that people have raised about his candidacy.
I thought Romney did fine, and continued to try and draw a contrast with Rudy. As I noted below, I thought he lacked heart his response to the tough question criticizing his statement about his sons serving their country by trying to get him elected. Also, I’m curious to see how his hedging on Iraq plays out in the coming days and weeks.
I’m going to take a break before the Fred show on Leno. Jim Geraghty already has the transcript, but I prefer to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so I’ll hold off on reading it.