After relinquishing his front-runner status amid the backlash against his immigration positions and then languishing among second-tier candidates in both polling and fund-raising, John McCain performed strongly Sunday night at the Republican presidential debate, which was superbly moderated by Fox News Channel. If Mr. McCain stages a major comeback in his second quest for the Republican nomination, analysts will likely trace the beginning of his "surge" to the Orlando debate. Meanwhile, after several less-than-stellar performances during his first debate and at recent candidate forums, Fred Thompson had a pretty good evening as well.
At the skillful urging of Fox News' Chris Wallace, the candidates catalogued their conservative bona fides, intensely questioned the conservative credentials of their opponents and passionately argued the merits of their leadership qualities. Whether the issue involved bedrock contemporary American conservative principles or the longevity with which a candidate has embraced those tenets, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney endured rhetorical assaults that neither was able to deflect.
Although Hillary Clinton was not on stage, the Republican candidates competed with each other by repeatedly referring to her, which had the effect of aggravating Mr. Giuliani's difficulties. For example, told by Mr. Wallace that Mr. Thompson was accusing him of being "soft" on abortion and gun control, Mr. Giuliani replied that "you can always find one exception or two to someone being absolutely conservative or absolutely this or absolutely that." Mr. Thompson effectively countered. "Mayor Giuliani believes in federal funding for abortion. He believes in sanctuary cities. He's for gun control. He supported Mario Cuomo, a liberal Democrat against a Republican who was running for governor; then [Mr. Giuliani] opposed the governor's tax cuts," Mr. Thompson enumerated, adding, "And he sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues."
Later, Mr. Wallace, who clearly had done his homework, observed that "Governor Romney says that Republicans aren't going to beat Hillary Clinton by acting like Hillary Clinton. And the point seems to be that on a lot of the social issues, like abortion, gay rights and gun control, that there's not much difference between you and Clinton. Is there?" he asked Mr. Giuliani, who could only initially stammer, "You got to be kidding. You have got to be kidding." Mr. Wallace wasn't kidding. It was a fair question. And even Mr. Giuliani's clever riposte — "We're both Yankee fans" but "I became a Yankee fan growing up in New York [and] she became a Yankee fan growing up in Chicago" — could not deflect the sting of the truth about those social issues.
Messrs. Thompson and Giuliani each offered sound insights on the nation's education problems. Admitting "we can't lay all this at the feet of the government," Mr. Thompson said, "We have to accept some hard truths. Part of the problem in our education system and with our children has to do with the societal breakdown that's going on in this country. We need more fathers to stay and raise their kids." Explaining his embrace of school vouchers, Mr. Giuliani perceptively noted that school choice will become "the single-biggest civil-rights issue that we [will] face in the 21st century."
Mr. McCain was at his best in defending his leadership experience. He ridiculed Mr. Romney's recent response to a question about whether he would seek Congress' approval before taking military action against Iran. "You sit down with your attorneys and [they] tell you what you have to do," Mr. Romney had replied. "The people I'd call in," Mr. McCain said Sunday night, "I'd call in my wisdom, my knowledge, my background, my experience and my ability to lead this nation." At another point in the debate, Mr. McCain said, "For 20 years, including leading the largest squadron in the United States Navy, I led. I didn't manage for profit, I led for patriotism." Mr. McCain rightly claimed that he "had a strong and a long relationship on national security," and nobody could doubt him when he insisted, "I am prepared. I am prepared. I need no on-the-job training." Later, referring to the accurate charges that Mr. Romney has in recent years flip-flopped on social issues important to conservatives, Mr. McCain unloaded: "Governor Romney, you've been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record. You can't — I don't want you to start fooling them about mine." Citing his "steadfast positions on [national security] issues for more than 20 years," Mr. McCain declared, "I know the transcendent challenge [and] I have the qualifications to lead, to grapple with and to emerge victorious."
It was a good debate thanks to Mr. Wallace and the tenor of the candidates. Applause, applause.