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By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published November 29, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - Who won the CNN/YouTube debate? Not beleaguered Republicans looking for a champion.
Nobody should have been surprised that the sparring was so aggressive in the final stretch of an unpredictable race. What was striking is how so many of these candidates are ripe for attack on so many core conservative issues.
Gun control? Front-runner Rudy Giuliani drew pronounced boos when he defensively talked about "reasonable regulations."
Abortion? Mitt Romney received what sounded like stony silence when he feebly quipped, "I'm not sure who that young guy was," after being confronted with old footage of him touting his support of legal abortions.
Tax hikes? Fred Thompson was kind enough to feature a video of then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee talking about the assorted tax increases he would support.
Immigration? Almost all of the leading candidates took direct hits, painting them as soft or inconsistent at best on that treacherous issue.
It was an especially bad night for Giuliani. Unlike the chipper, confident performances of past debates, he frequently looked sour and defensive Wednesday night, hours after revelations emerged that as New York mayor he charged security detail expenses to obscure trips to a Long Island resort at the time he started an extramarital affair with his current wife, Judith Nathan.
But after two hours of a frequently dramatic and sometimes quirky forum, we still don't know who is the clear Giuliani alternative. That's good news for the former New York mayor, whose path to the nomination is a lot easier with so many other viable, if flawed, candidates battling for the conservative mantle.
Florida didn't get much love from the CNN producers, who bypassed Florida-specific questions on issues like offshore drilling or a national disaster fund. But fireworks makes for good TV, and CNN made sure not to let the format of submitted questions get in the way of a good brawl.
And brawl they did, right from the opening bell, kicking off an extended, not especially presidential Mitt vs. Rudy fight over which one has been more inconsistent on immigration.
Romney slammed Giuliani for running a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants. Giuliani scoffed at Romney's "holier than thou" attitude, and accused Romney of running a "sanctuary mansion" because some illegal immigrants were found doing lawn work.
Romney, with strong organizations in the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, is the biggest threat to Giuliani, but it was a weak night for him, too. On everything from the Bible to waterboarding, he came off as a parser.
The strongest performance of the night? Huckabee. The Baptist minister surging into the top tier showed he can stand with the big guys, even as he starts to take the heat that he escaped as a long shot. He is as quick on his feet as anyone, as was evident when Anderson Cooper tried to pin him down on whether Jesus would support the death penalty.
"Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson."
It was the strongest debate performance yet from former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who badly needs to resuscitate his campaign. He had some strong one-liners, but he received so little air time that he failed to stand out.
He also faced the worst insult of all: being ignored by his rivals, who apparently don't see him as enough of a threat to bother criticizing.
John McCain, while often grave and grim, invariably passes the "Is he presidential?" test at these events. Knowing his background as a POW, it's riveting to watch him talk about torture, even though a considerable chunk of the Republican base doesn't share his concern over waterboarding, an interrogation tactic that simulates drowning.
When the Arizona senator jumped on Romney for not taking a clear position on whether waterboarding is torture, his contempt for the former Massachusetts governor came off as visceral and oh-so sincere.
"Governor, let me tell you, if we're going to gain the high ground in this world ... we're not going to torture people," McCain said. "How in the world someone could think that kind of thing could be inflicted on people who are in our custody is absolutely beyond me."
I don't buy the talk that Democrats have the White House all but locked up. But listening to these Republicans tied up in knots on abortion, guns and immigration in a debate that barely touched on kitchen table issues like gas prices and the economy, it's hard to imagine that Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama lost much sleep if they tuned to CNN Wednesday night.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 727893-8241.
[Last modified November 29, 2007, 00:57:10]