By Dick Morris on May 16, 2007


Volume 1, #10

May 16, 2007

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Watching the FOX News Presidential debate in South Carolina last night, it was clear that there were really five separate mini-debates going on within the main debate, as the ten Republican contenders went at it for the second time. This second debate, sponsored by Fox News, was more lively and less starched then their earlier, boring contest two weeks ago. Each internal debate had its own winner and loser:

· · The Main Event, in the center ring, featured Rudy Giuliani vs John McCain for the status of front runner.

The winner: Rudy by a knockout!

· · Then there was the Romney debate as Mitt Romney debated himself, trying to shake off the image of a flipper and a flopper who trimmed his position on issues to suit the constituency he was facing.

The loser: Romney

· · Then, on the right, there was the Battle of the Six Conservatives on the stage to break through (Huckabee, Brownback, Gilmore, Hunter, Tancredo, Thompson) and prove to the conservatives that they did not need to wait for Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich to emerge as the hero or Mr. Right.

The winner: Mike Huckabee

· · Beneath the entire contest, there was a thematic competition between abortion and terrorism for the role of key issue in the Republican primary.

The winner: Terrorism

· · And finally, Fox News was facing off against MSNBC for who did better in staging the debate.

The winner: Fox News.

Rudy Giuliani needed to recover from his weak performance in the first debate, show a real contrast with runner-up John McCain, get over the abortion issue, and demonstrate why his experience in fighting terrorism made him the logical Republican candidate. Missions accomplished.

In the second debate, Rudy got his act together. The hesitant, tentative former Mayor who made his debut in the first debate was gone and in his stead came an aggressive, tough fighter on terror. When he interrupted Congressman Ron Paul and put him in his place, slapping him down for his ridiculous contention that we caused 9-11 by meddling in Iraq, he spoke like a president.

He stepped up and embraced his record on 9-11, making the telling point that he was best equipped to handle security issue of all the candidates. Anyone putting terrorism at the top of the national agenda had to be inspired by the Giuliani they saw on the podium.

But there are a lot of people who don’t put terrorism at the top of their agenda, but put abortion and other social issues up there. To them, Rudy showed himself to be a worthy opponent, sincere in his convictions but, in the view of social conservatives, wrong headed.

Giuliani’s performance drew the line clearly: If you are more focused on terror than social issues, Rudy is your man. If social issues mean more, he’s definitely not.

Meanwhile, John McCain showed what his problem is: After all of his years in Washington, he has become too much of an insider in the Senate. He justified his immigration positions by saying that he was trying to move a compromise in the Senate to get something passed (rather than stand on principle). He seemed almost to despair of making the Iraq War a popular cause again and affirmed the lonely view that he would “be the last man standing” in backing it. He said that he had opposed the Bush tax cuts because he felt that spending was out of control, even though he conceded that the tax cuts had stimulated revenue and cut the deficit. Insider positions all.

Gone was the attractive outsider John McCain railing at the special interests, engaging big tobacco, demanding corporate governance changes. The maverick had joined the fold.

But most important was his waffling answer to the chilling hypothesis posed by Fox News’ Brit Hume of a terror attack on three American shopping centers. Asked how he would interrogate the suspects to find out what was their next attack, he delivered an insider’s attack on aggressive interrogation (torture to its critics). He said that most military men opposed these tactics for fear that it would lead to similar treatment of our own troops if captured. Hey, John, these guys cut off heads if they get one of us and they don’t need any justification to do it. To most Americans, it would be just fine to waterboard Osama to find out where the next hit would be.

So, Mc Cain was the loser of the Main Event.

And while the debate raged, Mitt Romney was tripping over himself all night trying to explain his flip flops on abortion and other issues. Without the softball questioning of MSNBC (“Is there anything that don’t you like about America, Governor Romney”), he had to face hard interrogation from the Fox News team and he wasn’t up to it.

Asked why he converted from pro-life to pro-choice in 1994, he cited a relative who had died after an illegal abortion. Then pressed on why he switched back in 2006, he said that his research into stem cells convinced him that Roe v Wade had led to a throw-away culture that disregarded human life. When John McCain dryly commented that these seemed like “even numbered year conversions,”the kindest thing a Romney booster could do was change the channel.

This should have been Mitt’s week. A Sixty Minutes TV interview on Sunday, Fox News ads running all week, a cover on Time Magazine and then a debate to show off his handsome face and silken voice. You can’t ask for more than that. But it wasn’t to be. Instead, Mitt came over as an empty suit.

On the right, former Governors Mike Huckabee (Ark), James Gilmore (Va), Tommy Thompson (Wisc), Senator Sam Brownback (Kan), and Congressmen Tom Tancredo (Col) and Duncan Hunter (Cal) had to show that one of them was equipped to move up into the first tier of candidates and that there was no vacuum for Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich to fill by running.

Gilmore was OK. Brownback was bad. Thompson was worse. Tancredo came over as a demagogue. Hunter did pretty well, but Mike Huckabee did better.

As in the first debate, Mike Huckabee put on the most interesting performance. When he called Democratic spending as out of control “as John Edwards at a beauty shop”, he brought the house down. His response on abortion – challenging Rudy’s position on the morality of the issue – was clear and convincing. His second strong showing may perhaps lift him into contention. If charisma, creative responses, and a clear ability to communicate can lift a non-contender into the race, Huckabee is on his way.

But while politicians see debates and elections as a clash of candidates, history often remembers them as a battle of issues. Just as the 2004 contest evolved into a battle between the anti-terror candidate (Bush) and the domestic issues alternative (Kerry), so the GOP contest turned into a fight between terrorism and abortion for the primacy of first place in the lexicon of issues.

Terrorism trumped abortion. The chilling scenarios of possible terror attacks outlined by the Fox News team of Brit Hume, Wendell Golar, and Chris Wallace and the backdrop of the Ft. Dix terror plot, made clear the centrality of the security issue. While pro-life advocates like Huckabee did a fine job in summoning the emotion and reasoning behind their position, it could not compete with the idea of another 9/11 as the prime concern of GOP voters. And, if terrorism is the issue, Rudy will be the candidate.

Finally, viewers had a head-on contest between Fox News and MSNBC in debate staging. In the first debate, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews upstaged the candidates and seemed to be running himself for host-of-the-year. Rushing hither and yon over the stage, poking his microphone into each candidate’s face, he ran the debate like he runs Hardball, his MSNBC show. But Matthews’ questions were inane. He asked about pardons of Scooter Libby, whether the candidates would keep Karl Rove on staff, how they felt about evolution, and other topics he brought in, literally, from left field.

The trio of Hume-Golar-Wallace asked probing questions, stimulated a real debate, demanding answers to their questions, and gave us a chance to evaluate each of the candidates under fire. They did not try to sell themselves as the stars of the debate but remained catalysts trying to bring out what each candidate really stood for and was trying to say. Fox News showed why it is number one among cable new outlets and why MSNBC is a distant third.

Will the debate matter? Yes. The ratings may be low, but so is the turnout in Republican primaries. Only about 6% of the American population of voting age adults will participate in the GOP primaries. So the Fox News audience – about 3% of the population – hit a large portion of the potential electorate.

The enduring lesson of this debate is that terror is the issue of the race in the GOP primary. Giuliani’s resonance with the voters over his focus and experience on the key issue, even with his liberal answers on social issues, makes it clear that there is a new key issue in the GOP – terror.

THE DEMOCRATS: Why Did Hillary Regain The Lead?

All of the polls taken after the first Democratic presidential debate are clear in their conclusion: That Hillary Clinton has regained her large lead over Barack Obama. The Gallup Poll, for example, has her rebounding from a narrow 31-26 lead on April 13-15 to a comfortable 38-23 margin on May 4-6.

The question is why did Hillary rebound so strongly?

Four factors stand out strongly:

· · Voters are impressed by their first real exposure to her as an articulate, competent, and poised Senator

· She was tougher on terrorism than the others in the debate

· The Supreme Court partial birth abortion decision sets her up with her best issue

· She delivered a strong anti-war statement just as the poll was being taken.

In previous Play-by-Plays, we’ve discussed Hillary’s “talking dog” theory that she explained in her memoir, Living History. Her thesis is that when a woman appears to be articulate and knowledgeable in a public forum that people are so amazed that they don’t so much listen to what she says as marvel at the fact that she is saying it.

Hillary quoted Dr. Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century English philosopher, as comparing a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs. Boswell, Johnson’s biographer, wrote”its not that he does it well but that he does it at all.”

The talking dog theory has great validity but it is a passing phenomenon. At first people are very impressed by an articulate, intelligent, well informed woman standing among men and debating. That’s the up part of the talking dog curve. For most of the audience watching the first Democratic debate, this was their initial exposure to Hillary in a debate setting. Only some New Yorkers had seen her engage opponents in give and take before during her two Senate races.

So the talking dog theory worked. People were clearly impressed at the one woman standing out among the six suits.

But the fallacy of relying on the talking dog syndrome is that as large numbers of voters move further into the curve and see Hillary more and more, the novelty will wear off and her issue positions and style will matter more. That’s the downward slope at the back of the talking dog curve.

Just as important as the talking dog syndrome in explaining Hillary’s surge after the debate was her strong answer and Obama’s pathetic reply to the question of how they would respond to a terror attack on US cities.

Obama answered first and began by saying that we needed to make sure we had an adequate number of “emergency responders.” Then he said his second concern would be to find out why our intelligence had not alerted us to the danger of an attack and had not thwarted it. Only then did he say, albeit vaguely, that he would see if the intelligence was clear enough in identifying those responsible that we could see about “dismantling the network” that had launched the attack.

Oh brother!

Hillary hit the question out of the park. She began by saying that she would “retaliate” not just against the terrorists, but against any country that was found to have harbored, trained, or equipped them. She assuaged the left by saying that she would not go looking for a war, but made clear that she was a lot tougher on terror than the ingénue from Illinois.

It was the moment that may have stopped Obama’s momentum dead in its tracks.

Before the debate even began, Hillary had an edge after the US Supreme Court decision upholding a Congressional ban on partial birth abortion. With a majority looming on the horizon seemingly likely to reverse Roe v Wade, women throughout America turn their eyes to Hillary as the most likely protector of their right to choose. Just as a war would heighten the attention one might pay to a general running for office, the Court decision put a premium on pro-choice women. And that means Hillary.

Finally, right after the debate, Hillary made her strongest statement yet against the war in Iraq, saying that she would vote to repeal the 2002 resolution authorizing the war in the first place. Never mind that she has construed the “Resolution to Authorize the Use of Force in Iraq” as meaning that we would not use force in Iraq but would send in more UN inspectors, her announcement that she would introduce a measure to repeal the resolution showed her strong opposition to the war. With liberals doubting if she had the fiber to stand up against the war, her statement was music to their ears.

How permanent is Hillary’s gain?

Likely she will fade back again and Obama will rise once more to make it a real contest. This race will go down to the wire.

All of Hillary’s advantages are short lived. Obama will likely get his act together in the next debate and show some spine in dealing with terrorists. The novelty of the talking dog will wear off. The Court decision on abortion will fade from the headlines. And, most important, Hillary will vote with the Congressional leadership to cave into Bush and give him the war funding that he wants.

I still think Hillary will win both the nomination and the election, but the race will get closer once more.

Stay tuned and follow it in Play by Play!

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