A good night for Bush and a bad one for Trump

I hadn’t expected to watch Thursday night’s Republican debate. But it turned out to be available on my flight to San Fransciso, my credit card was twitching in my hand, and so…

For what it’s worth, I thought Jeb Bush was the winner and Donald Trump the loser. There were three adults on stage: Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich. Christie positioned himself as a bad man for bad times, ready to cut your Social Security and take away your civil liberties, and that never appeals to voters. He certainly got the better of it stylistically with Rand Paul, but I suspect most Americans like the idea that the government can’t spy on you without a warrant.

Which leaves Bush and Kasich. Both were calm, amiable and, in my view, quite appealing. But Kasich, the governor of Ohio, seemed more like the guy who should be welcoming the candidates to his home state, not an actual candidate. Bush seemed happy to be there and fundamentally optimistic in his outlook. He made no obvious errors. It was the biggest event of the campaign so far, and he did well.

Now I realize that Trump has made a shameful and shameless buffoon of himself on numerous occasions, and his poll numbers have only gone up. But I thought the Fox News moderators did an excellent job of forcing him to talk about the fact that he’s not much of a Republican or a conservative. Not that he cared — he responded to everything with his usual bluster. But that, more than a litany of offensive Trumpisms, is going to take a toll on his campaign. He could run as an independent, of course, but I strongly suspect he’ll be a much-diminished figure six months from now.

The post-debate punditry seemed to focus on Marco Rubio. I agree that he didn’t embarrass himself, but he struck me as stiff and overly prepared in the manner of someone who was a little too young and inexperienced to be up there.

Of the rest, Scott Walker disappeared into a miasma of blandness, Ted Cruz should disappear, Rand Paul failed to meet even the extremely low level of plausibility set by his father (although, as I said, I’m mostly with him on civil liberties and his opposition to foreign intervention) and Ben Carson made me wonder what all the fuss was about two years ago.

And Mike Huckabee is just a hate-mongering disgrace.

Huckabee’s speech

The former Arkansas governor reminds us that he is a masterful political performer. The desk bit went on too long, though.

Number two with a bullet

McCainiancs nervous over the prospect that their man might pick Mike Huckabee as his running mate needn’t worry — Huckabee took himself out of the running earlier today by making a grotesque joke about Barack Obama, guns and assassination. Reuters reports:

Former Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee, interrupted on Friday by a loud crash as he spoke to the National Rifle Association, joked that the noise was Democratic candidate Barack Obama falling off a chair as he dodged a gun aimed at him.

“That was Barack Obama. He just tripped off a chair. He was getting ready to speak and somebody aimed a gun at him, and he dove for the floor,” Huckabee told the NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in comments that aired on CNN.

What a sense of humor, eh?

Not a great night for McCain

I wasn’t going to post during the debate. But I dozed off, and woke up to watch McCain and Romney going at it on the timetables McCain says Romney advocated to withdraw from the war in Iraq. McCain seems petulant and petty tonight, his contempt for Romney barely disguised. McCain’s not telling the truth about Romney, and he all but admitted it, justifying it by pointing to the millions of dollars Romney spent on negative ads aimed at McCain and Huckabee.

Responding to a question about whether Romney was qualified to be commander-in-chief, McCain made a crack about Romney’s experience selling and buying companies and eliminating people’s jobs.

Huckabee’s whining incessantly about not getting equal time. He’s lucky he’s up there. It’s not as if anyone has voted for him lately. And Ron Paul is even luckier.

Last Republicans standing

It is with some amazement that I find myself thinking of Mitt Romney as one of the last two Republicans standing — and as the person who might at this point be the favorite to win the nomination. Yes, just last night I said that John McCain probably had a clearer path than anyone else. But I’ve been rethinking that.

First, let me deal with the also-rans, all of whom are pretty much done at this point.

  • Mike Huckabee. It ended last night for the good reverend. If he can’t ride the Confederate flag and his bizarre equation of homosexuality and bestiality to victory in South Carolina, he certainly can’t do it anywhere else.
  • Fred Thompson. Dead man walking or dead man withdrawing — it’s up to him.
  • Rudy Giuliani. Wasn’t he supposed to be running for president? Of the United States, not just Florida?
  • Ron Paul. He’ll keep getting whatever he’s getting.

So we’ve basically got a two-man race between McCain and Romney, which was pretty hard to imagine after Romney lost New Hampshire. I didn’t hear any squawking last October when Ryan Lizza wrote in the New Yorker that Romney’s only chance was to win Iowa and New Hampshire, then hope for momentum. He lost both, of course, and has won only one competitive state — Michigan. Yet he’s very much alive.

Consider that McCain has won two hard-fought primaries, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but has yet to win a plurality of Republicans anywhere. As Adam Nagourney observes in the New York Times today, many of the upcoming primaries are for Republicans only.

Consider, too, that conservatives have been split among Romney, Huckabee and Thompson. Not anymore.

Add to this Romney’s personal fortune and his willingness to say absolutely anything to get elected, and he may very well have the edge.

Finally, check out Jeff Jacoby’s column in today’s Globe. Jacoby, a conservative who’s been mocking Romney since 1994, is appalled at Romney’s attempt to don the cloak of Ronald Reagan.

Photo (cc) by Joe Crimmings. Some rights reserved.

Latter-day Willie Hortons

In my latest for the Guardian, I consider how Mike Huckabee’s and Mitt Romney’s reactions to their own latter-day Willie Hortons illuminate their character.