MYRTLE BEACH, S.C., Jan. 11, 2008 -- Nothing on the debate stage in this first-in-the-South primary state seemed to change the dynamics of the race for the Republican presidential nomination Thursday evening.
However, that is not to say we didn't learn things about the current state of play. Arizona Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney are focused on their New Hampshire rematch coming up in Michigan. Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee are in a battle for Southern champ in South Carolina. And Rudolph Giuliani sees McCain as a potential threat.
First and foremost, Thompson is apparently still running for president and almost looked like he wanted to win. The former Tennessee senator has said he is drawing a line in the sand in South Carolina and that was clearly on display during the debate.
Thompson, who delivered a strong performance, took on Huckabee, a fellow Southerner, by unloading a slew of memorized opposition research about the former Arkansas governor's record. "This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and its future. On the one hand, you have the Reagan revolution. You have the Reagan coalition of limited government and strong national security."
"On the other hand, you have the direction that Gov. Huckabee would take us in. He would be a Christian leader, but he would also bring about liberal economic policies, liberal foreign policies. He believes we have an arrogant foreign policy and the tradition of, blame America first. He believes that Guantanamo should be closed down and those enemy combatants brought here to the United States to find their way into the court system eventually. He believes in taxpayer-funded programs for illegals, as he did in Arkansas," Thompson said. "That's not the model of the Reagan coalition. That's the model of the Democratic Party."
Huckabee used what has now become a frequent retort whenever he is attacked. "If you're not catching flak, you're not over the target. I'm catching the flak, I must be over the target," Huckabee quipped.
Although the debate took place in South Carolina, the fast approaching Jan. 15 Michigan primary was in the foreground at times. Romney sought to paint a rosier picture about the future of Michigan's economy than McCain, his chief rival in the Wolverine State.
"I know that there are some people who think, as Sen. McCain did, he said, you know, some jobs have left Michigan that are never coming back. I disagree," said the former Massachusetts governor.
McCain seized the opportunity to once again portray Romney as a "phony," much as he did using the words of the Concord Monitor in his New Hampshire television advertising.
"One of the reasons why I won in New Hampshire is because I went there and told them the truth. And sometimes you have to tell people things they don't want to hear, along with things that they do want to hear," said McCain. "There are jobs — let's have a little straight talk — there are some jobs that aren't coming back to Michigan. There are some jobs that won't come back here to South Carolina. But we're going to take care of them. That's our goal. That's our obligation," he added.
Giuliani continued to hammer home his strategy to overlook many of the early states in the nominating process and look ahead to the Florida primary on Jan. 29 and Super Duper Tuesday on Feb. 5.
"If we want to be a party that can run and win in states that Ronald Reagan won — New York, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, states we haven't won in a long, long time, and states in which we don't even campaign any longer — we're going to have to take a really good look at what made up the Reagan coalition. It was a broad outreach, an inclusive one, not one that kept people away," the former New York mayor pleaded.
Giuliani also showed for the first time in a debate that he is keenly aware that he and McCain — who, by all accounts, think fondly of each other — are fighting for many of the same voters. So, he gently drew some distinctions.
"As mayor of New York, I was involved in foreign policy issues all the time and the difference between being an executive and being a legislator is you're not just one of 100. You have to actually make decisions and there are consequences to your decisions," he said in defending his foreign policy credentials.
Giuliani also took pains to remind viewers that he was supportive of the surge in Iraq on the very night President Bush announced the new policy one year ago. McCain quickly reminded viewers that he took the more unpopular stance — within Republican ranks at the time — of opposing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's strategy and calling for the new policy.
"My point is that I've been involved in every major national security challenge for the last 20 years and before that, I fought in some of them," McCain added.