The next big debate clip?


Name something else that happened in the Lloyd Bentsen-Dan Quayle debate. Of course you can't. Lloyd told Dan he was no John Kennedy. Everything else is vapor.

Name something about the Ford-Carter debate except for Ford's liberating Eastern European. Name something about the Reagan-Mondale debate except for Reagan's saying he wouldn't exploit Mondale's youth and inexperience. Name something that happened when Bush the Elder debated Dukakis except for Bernie Shaw's question about what Dukakis would think of the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered.

You simply can't, unless there's something quite odd about you.

For all the subtlety and nuance that consume insiders, debates matter only for pronounced moments that get etched in our consciousness. That usually happens by repetitious videotaped replay, creating a lingering conventional wisdom.

The other night's debate of the 10 Republican presidential candidates on Fox offered two strong moments, both temporarily defining and potentially of actual significance.

Ron Paul, an admirably sincere libertarian, said that a real Republican in the Taft tradition would disengage from sticky entanglements around the world. He said America engenders hatred by its arrogant intervention. He asked how Americans would react if China built military bases here. He said terrorists were motivated by hatred of us because of our Mideast activities.

He made worthy points. America has faults. The problem is that invoking those faults in the context of the war on terror could be interpreted as saying more than America is hardly blameless in a general sense. It could be interpreted as saying America is specifically to blame for the terrorist attack of 9-11.

And that's outrageous. Evil is evil. Mass murder is mass murder.

America has made many mistakes, the current tragedy in Iraq as epic as any. But even to hint at an explanation for evil and murder is to flirt with excuses for it, and there simply are none.

Nothing our country has done provides any shred of a license for what the terrorists have done.

Only one of the other nine candidates was sufficiently fast on his feet to act on an impromptu basis and attack Paul's comment as ridiculous and deplorable. It was the front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, who, in seizing this good moment, managed to trump his immediately preceding bad moments.

He'd just had to admit, again, that he favors a woman's right to choose abortion, which the Republican base can't abide. He'd just been confronted with having once endorsed Mario Cuomo, and could respond only that Hillary Clinton was frightful.

It wasn't merely that Giuliani instinctively acted on a statement ripe for deploring. It wasn't only that the issue played to his strength as New York's mayor during the terrorist attack. It was that he showed you something.

The debate's other moment, considerably less substantive, belonged to Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas. He lifted himself from the second-tier likes of Tom Tancredo, Jim Gilmore, Duncan Hunter and Tommy Thompson.

You now have Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney in the top tier. You have Fred Thompson as top tier in-waiting. Now you have Huckabee alone in mid-tier. The others should forget it.

How did Huckabee distinguish himself? It was with a mean, if funny, one-liner, probably well-planned. He said Congress had been spending like John Edwards in a beauty shop.

Not barber shop. Beauty shop.

If the Republicans should wind up with a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket, as hard as that may be to imagine, we could find ourselves looking back to say it was formed in a couple of moments in May 2007.

 

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

 

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