GOP presidential debate co-anchor John Harris with his post-debate analysis.
HH: It wasn’t just a coming out party last night for ten Republican would-be presidents, but also for www.politico.com. And the editor-in-chief of Politico joins me now, John Harris. John, you were ready for your close up. How nervous were you?
JH: (laughing) Well, I was a little nervous, but you know, I figured as long as I had my hair combed, and my tie straight, I’d get out of there okay.
HH: You were doing that Fred Friendly thing, walking up and down the stage. Had you rehearsed that?
JH: Yes, we did. NBC and MSNBC were the television producers of this. They were our partner for the debate, and we took our cues from them. We did do some rehearsals of that, so I was more confident I wouldn’t fall on my face.
HH: Now other than Politico, who was the winner last night?
JH: Well, a lot of the chatter in the Spin Room afterwards, and just looking over the coverage, said that Mitt Romney, who’s really introducing himself to a large audience, he’s clearly attracted a lot of notice among the Republican elite, but he showed what the interest is about. He had a very commanding presence, very smooth, showed a little humor. I thought he did well. I thought the other two of the so-called top tier candidates, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani had some good moments, and had some uneven moments. I don’t think they did anything to fundamentally alter the structure of the race, but while everybody got out of there alive, I do think Mitt Romney probably earned himself some second looks by people.
HH: I just got done talking to Governor Romney right before you came on, John.
HH: And you’ll be pleased to know that he’s never been to a Star Trek convention. I confirmed that after the science fiction thing.
HH: And also that he’s a big Louis L’Amour reader in addition to science fiction and Mark Twain. But I really…
JH: That’s a little strange, that reference.
HH: I hate science fiction. I told him that alarmed me more than anything I’d heard from any candidate thus far, that he was a science fiction guy. But he denies being exclusively science fiction. But he does admit to some guilty pleasures in that regard. And he has not been to a Star Trek convention.
JH: Okay, I’m surprised that you were surprised by that. I figured you knew all there was to know.
HH: I had not asked…I talked at length with him about his non-fiction reading habits, and detailed them in A Mormon In The White House? And they’re extensive and all-consuming. I didn’t…you know, evidently everybody needs some mindless entertainment once in a while, because that was a blind spot in my book. Let me ask you, though, I also asked him what did you make of the questions. I was going after Matthews, because I thought Matthews was off the wall. I don’t expect you to say that about your co-host last night. And we said well, some of the Politico questions were off the wall, and he brought up the one about the single moms in prison. And I must have been typing away. I missed that one. What was that question?
JH: Well, as you know, Politico invited our readers to submit questions, and then we submitted those to a vote, so it really was the Politico audience that was directing those questions. We had more than 600,000 votes. There was a question about should non-violent female offenders have such severe prison sentences. A lot of them have young children, and don’t necessarily present a threat to violence, and a Politico reader wanted to know, you know, what do you make of that? I acknowledge that’s not the best question that’s been in the mainstream of the presidential debate, but nonetheless, it shouldn’t just be reporters and television actors like Chris Matthews that get to decide these debates. We wanted to let the public have their say. That was a little eccentric, maybe, but there were some other very good questions that came from the audience. You saw Rudy Giuliani get a pop quiz from one of our Politico readers, explain the difference between the Shiites and Sunni, and he got the answer, but you could see him sort of checking his mental note cards as he did so. All in all, we thought the internet component worked very well.
HH: John Harris, I have a friend who’s an orthopedic surgeon. He says the dent between the eyes of an orthopedic surgeon is where they hit their head when they say oh, that’s it. Did you have any oh, that’s it moments last night after the debate was over?
JH: You know, I didn’t. You mean, in terms of what the candidates had to say?
HH: Yeah, where you could have followed up with just the absolute crushing question that might have decided the entire presidential election right then?
JH: No, you know, we had decided before, and it’s just my philosophy anyway, that the audience really doesn’t want the reporters to try to run away with the show. I did follow up a couple of times, including once with Governor Romney on his abortion answer, and asking him to address the criticism that he’s driven by political convenience or opportunism, followed up a couple of times with Senator McCain and others. But in general, I didn’t feel like I wanted to dispute the answers, or force them, or accuse them of not answering. I did think that at times that some of the questions were evasive, but the audience can judge that as well as I can.
HH: Going to Senator McCain’s gates of hell comment, he might go to the gates of hell, but he won’t come on the Hugh Hewitt Show, though. What did you think of that? Was that a little pre-packaged moment?
JH: Well, there’s no question that he was going out of his way to make that point. He thought that Governor Romney had given him an opening by saying that we should move Heaven and Earth, and billions of dollars to try and track down one man, Osama bin Laden, and McCain was determined to go in there and make the point that yes, he did think it’s worth doing everything to track down bin Laden. A lot of the commentary afterwards thought the moment was a little strange. He said he was going to chase bin Laden down to the gates of hell, and then he had a kind of peculiar smile on his face when he finished up on the word hell. To be honest, I didn’t, wasn’t focused on it, because I was thinking of my own next stage direction. But a lot of people on TV thought it was a kind of odd facial expression, and kind of an odd moment.
HH: Now can you see these guys…well, let me ask you this. Which candidate had “The Moment?” The moment that you knew they had most connected with the audience. What sticks in your mind?
JH: Well, I’m not sure that I saw one of those Ronald Reagan style, I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green moments. Again, I do think that several times, Governor Romney took advantage of the questions to make his points, and to present himself as he wants to be seen, as an attractive, articulate, polished guy. Some people actually thought he was a little too polished, seemed a little too programmed. I thought for all his kind of murky answer on the abortion question, Mayor Giuliani did have some good moments where he reminded people of his greatest strength, which is his record in New York, governing as a Republican in a Democratic city, and making the point that he stands for what he calls a Republican philosophy of staying on offense in the war on terrorism. That’s going to resonate with the Republican voters, maybe not so much with others. So yeah, there were several moments, but there were no a-ha moments.
HH: And lastly, the…can we put up with this for fifteen…I mean, it’s fifteen months until a Republican debates Hillary. Won’t we all be comatose?
JH: Maybe. You know, a few months ago, in an interview with Politico.com, Karl Rove was raising this question, saying you know what? By the fall, a lot of voters may be so sick of examining the merchandise that there will be an opportunity for somebody new to get in, and he was talking on both parties there. You know, just as a counter to that, we keep talking about how early it is, but is it really that early?
HH: No, January 29th for Florida. That’s announced today. We’re really not far from a primary. John Harris of www.politico.com, congratulations on a great coming out for Politico.com, and a good performance last night.
End of interview.