John McCain assumed the mantle of front-runner for the Republican Presidential nomination at the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina debate. He refused to engage in criticism of his chief rival, Mitt Romney, which had been a hallmark of previous debates, when he had called Romney to task for “flip-flopping” on the issues. Strangely for such a still-competitive contest, McCain did not come in for the sniping and criticism usually heaped on a front-runner. He was given a pass this night by four of his five rivals: Only Mitt Romney dared cross him, once on a McCain remark that jobs that had been lost in Michigan would never come back, and then on his signature issue of illegal immigration.
The Fox News Channel debate moderators did little to up the temperature of the debate, generally avoiding any controversies. They did, however, question Mike Huckabee’s religious fervor and bait Ron Paul on the issue of Iran.
The South Carolina Republican Presidential Primary is scheduled for Saturday, January 19, 2008, three days before the Democratic Primary. McCain is leading the South Carolina polls. This was the last debate before the Michigan primary of January 15th, which Romney must win to stay in contention.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was born in Michigan, and his father George, a candidate for the 1968 Republican Presidential nomination, was the state’s governor from 1963 to 1969, so he will be running as a “Favorite Son” candidate. However, his near-Favorite Son status in neighboring New Hampshire ultimately did not help him as he was beaten by U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona.
For the most part, the Republican candidates were cautious to maintain a sense of cordiality, disagreeing on specifics rather than generalities. Their overall timorousness is probably due to South Carolina’s reputation for volatility After winning the New Hampshire primary in the year 2000, John McCain lost the contest in the Palmetto State to then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. The 2000 South Carolina Primary was acrimonious, marked by a smear campaign that attempted to portray Vietnam veteran McCain as mentally and emotionally unbalanced by his seven-years of captivity during the War.
Many commentators, including Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic, were impressed by former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson’s performance. This was Thompson’s second consecutive strong debate performance, coming after New Hampshire, where he focused his ire and barbs on Mitt Romney. Thompson, like the others, went easy on Romney this time around, instead targeting Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, for not being true to the small-government vision of former President Ronald Reagan.
Romney likely was ignored as he has been weakened by successive losses in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary.
South Carolina has a large population of evangelical Christian voters who are a major force in the state G.O.P. McCain does not track particularly well with this demographic, and many evangelicals distrust the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) of which Romney is a prominent member, being a stake president (equivalent roughly to a bishop). Huckabee, a Baptist minister, is considered the favorite in the evangelical demographic, which also is being wooed by Thompson as it is central to the conservative base to which the former Senator and Hollywood character actor is appealing. To distinguish himself from Huckabee, Thompson accused the former governor of being too liberal on social and economic issues to woo voters.
Huckabee was asked by the Fox moderators about a Southern Baptist Convention ad he endorsed that was run in The New York Times in 1998 that claimed a wife should properly be “submissive” to her husband. Famed for his quick wit, Huckabee responded, “Everybody says religion is off limits, except that they always ask me the religious question.” This was a reference to the gentleman’s agreement not to question Romney’s Mormonism.
He went on to rack up points with the audience by claiming, “If anybody knows my wife, I don’t think they for one minute think that she’s going to just sit by and let me do whatever I want to.” Huckabee then explained that the Biblical quote the ad based its message on was taken out of context, and that actually the Bible wants both husband and wife to submit both to one another and to God.
Huckabee gained the applause of the crowd when he proclaimed, “I’m not the least bit ashamed of my faith or the doctrines of it. I don’t try to impose that as a governor and I wouldn’t impose it as a president.”
There was a broad consensus on most issues, with all six candidates generally in agreement on such issues as the economy and foreign policy, with Ron Paul’s support for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq being the glaring exception. All candidates agree that illegal immigration is a major issue that must be addressed by the next president, though there was disagreement in how to handle the illegal immigrants who already reside in the U.S.
Romney, who won the majority of the Republican voters in the New Hampshire primary who cited illegal immigration as the major issue, was careful to lay out his program for dealing with the issue. He once again questioned McCain’s plan to help undocumented immigrants gain citizenship, but McCain refused to rise to the debate, as befits the demeanor of a front-runner. The personal attacks of the last New Hampshire debate largely were avoided.
Self-proclaimed “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani, the former front-runner in national polls, was curiously unengaged in the debate. Like Mike Huckabee, Giuliani focused on recitations of his record and how this meant he would be a good chief executive for the country. The former mayor of New York City was a non-contender in Iowa and did surprisingly poorly in New Hampshire, where he came in fourth, with only 2,000 votes and 1% above fifth-place finisher Ron Paul.
What else was surprising during the debate was that Ron Paul wasn’t queried about newsletters published under his name that contained racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic rants. Paul had disavowed the opinions carried by his newsletters, saying he did not write the opinions in question, and disavowed bigotry. Although the Fox News commentators did breach the subject of whether Paul was electable, they did not follow through with a question about the newsletters.
Paul, alone among the candidates in his staunch opposition to foreign intervention, further defined his stance against broadening the conflict in the Middle East. Responding to a question about the correct response to the recent provocation by Iranian speedboats, Paul brought up the Gulf of Tonkin incident that brought the U.S. into the Vietnam War, and how the incident later was proved to be false. Paul also charged that the Bush Administration, disappointed with the recent National Intelligence Estimate that revealed that Iran’s nuclear weapons program has been suspended since 2003, is seeking a provocation to broaden the Iraq War and launch an attack on Iran.
“I’m worried about the policy of why we’re looking for a justification, now there are no weapons, actually people are looking around a for an excuse to bomb Iran,” Paul said. “I mean, we’re already, with our CIA, being involved in trying to overthrow that government, and we don’t need another war. And this incident should not be thrown out of proportion to the point where we’re getting ready to attack Iran over this.”
Romney responded by saying “I think Congressman Paul should not be reading as many of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s press releases,” before being cut off by laughter and boos from the crowd.
Source: The Boston Globe, “At S.C. debate, six Republican candidates play nice,” by Susan Milligan