During the last Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, the GOP presidential candidates adhered to Reagan's 11th commandment -- thou shalt not attack thy fellow Republican. But in South Carolina, politics tends to get a little rough, and the candidates followed suit in the Fox News debate Tuesday night. Ultimately, two of the tougher guys on the stage -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- seemed to emerge the stronger for it, with sturdier performances than the first debate.
Showing the sharpest edges, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was first to take his attacks on his rivals from his stump speeches to the debate stage, noting that "I looked back at the California debates, and I think that some of the people on this stage were very liberal in characterizing themselves as conservatives, particularly on the issues of abortion and taxes and health care." On the campaign trail, Gilmore often uses the amalgam "Rudy McRomney" -- an allegedly liberal mishmash of Giuliani, McCain, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But Gilmore refrained from identifying the targets of his wrath until prompted to repeatedly by the moderators, which undermined the boldness he was trying to project.
When delivered correctly, clever one-liners usually get easy applause and laughter. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee drew the loudest audience guffaw when he quipped that "We've had a Congress that's spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop." Referencing the rightward conversions of several candidates on issues, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., quipped that "it's beginning to truly sound like a Baptist tent revival meeting here," but noted, "I trust those conversions when they happen on the road to Damascus and not on the road to Des Moines."
Sometimes the substance of the one-liners supersedes the style and in those moments the applause is all that much richer for the candidate. Mitt Romney's anti-McCain two-fer was such a line. "My fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad," said Romney to great applause as he hit two of McCain's positions unpopular with the Republican base.
But McCain refused to take Romney's attack laying down, prompting one of the edgiest moments of the night. "Well, I take and kept a consistent position on campaign finance reform ... I have kept a consistent position on right-to-life. And I haven't changed my position on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for," said McCain in a not-so-subtle dig at Gov. Romney's recent conversions on a number of issues ranging from abortion to gay rights to taxes.