John McCain won over few if any conservatives tonight, and his display of bad temper and his rambling filibuster of his wrongful “timetables” attack on Romney from last weekend may even have lost him some moderates. In the spin room heads were shaking. McCain was at his worst in the second half of the debate, and those who watched had to ask themselves how this sort of performance would play against a youthful, upbeat Obama with a MSM ready not to protect McCain but tear into him as aging and confused –even obviously deceptive– about his facts.
The first half of the debate was Romney’s on points. Romney began by listing the series of assaults on conservative values championed by McCain including McCain-Feingold, McCain-Kennedy, the McCain-Lieberman global warming regulatory monster, the opposition to exploration in ANWR and the votes against the Bush tax cuts. McCain’s responses are the same we have heard again and again, and they do not wear well. Romney was assisted by the obvious downgrading by Anderson Cooper and Janet Hook of Mike Huckabee, and Huckabee’s frustration at his demotion to Ron Paul status broke through in the second half of the debate, but only served to underscore that the real contest doesn’t involve him. It is a McCain-Romney race, and anyone watching the debate knows that.
If they are Republicans, they also will almost certainly walk away disquieted by the prospect of a McCain nomination, both because of his ideas and even more so because he just didn’t look electable tonight. Romney did. In fact McCain’s best part of the day was when Rudy was talking about him, and it went down hill from there. McCain will get another assist from Arnold tomorrow or Friday, but it is hard to hide the fact that this would be a second Bob Dole campaign, with less energy and fewer conservative principles. Many, many Republicans have to be worried not just about losing the White House, but about a dispirited party and a down-ticket wipe-out. McCain supported the surge. That’s true, and a very strong point. But is it enough to wage a nine-month campaign on?
Romney’s third conscutive strong performance in a debate will almost certainly lead to a rise day-to-day over the next six days in key states, but whether he rises fast or far enough depends primarily on the Huckabee voters’ recognition that continued allegiance to the Huck spells a McCain nomination and all that means for the next nine months.