If you read one thing about the Republican race and the GOP debates this weekend, read Joe Klein's post about John McCain. Klein argues that it was basically a "lost weekend" for the straight-talker:
The polls still have John McCain comfortably ahead of Mitt Romney in the New Hampshire primary, but I don't believe them. For one thing, McCain has just dragged himself through two of his worst debate performances ever. For another, Mitt Romney--even though under assault constantly in Saturday night's debate--has had two of his best debate performances yet.
I agree. I thought McCain was way too snide in Saturday night's debate. The effect was to make Romney look sympathetic. And, from what I heard last night (I caught about three-quarters of the Fox debate on the radio, most of it during the re-airing), McCain just seemed passive. Romney hit him pretty hard for voting against the Bush tax cuts, and all McCain could muster in response was a non sequitur about cutting spending. (Granted, Republicans love to talk about spending cuts. But that doesn't explain why McCain opposed the tax cuts.) Romney also hit him hard on immigration, and McCain just kind of sighed and recited his usual line about how illegal aliens are God's children and how we have to stop hyper-ventilating and solve this problem. As I say, I wasn't watching the video. But if it were possible to hear someone roll their eyes, that's what it would've sounded like.
Klein also had this great observation:
The futility of the various attacks on Romney was apparent in tonight's debate: none of the Republicans chose to go after him, except Fred Thompson, who seems to be campaigning from a hammock even when he's sitting upright...and whose toughest barbs (Ted Kennedy endorsed Romney's Massachusetts health care plan) float across the stage like soap bubbles. That meant each of the candidates had been told by their staffs that Saturday night's assaults hadn't worked.
Agreed. The Romney-bashing might have worked if only one person had been doing it. But, collectively, it just looked like a pile-on, and made Romney look like the only dignified--dare I say presidential--guy on stage.
Finally, Klein says he watched the debate with a group of conservative Republicans at the Merrimack Diner. They "Just. Loved. Romney," he reports, adding: "Most of those who came in undecided had switched to Mitt by the end of the show. They just adored his position on illegal immigration (their dials plummeted when McCain said we had to be 'humane.') They loved his explanation of why he had switched his position on abortion. They loved it when he nailed Huckabee as a tax raiser."
Contrary to what McCain himself says, this thing's not over yet.
Update: Commenter liebig says it's not a non sequitur for McCain to argue that we need spending cuts before we reduce taxes. I agree--but, other than obliquely hinting at it, McCain didn't really make that argument. (See the transcript here--it's toward the beginning.) He basically just ticked off a bunch of spending projects he'd opposed, and mentioned how he'd helped put Jack Abramoff in prison. There wasn't much of an attempt to connect this to his vote opposing the Bush tax cuts.