Dick Morris is no friend of Mitt Romney, and his declaration of Romney as the “winner” tonight is the assessment that caught my eye. That’s called “an admission against interest,” and it is very significant. I think I know why. Every American ought to respect John McCain’s service, but it is very difficult to like him. He went after Romney tonight like he went after John Cornyn during the immigration debate. To disagree with John McCain is to go on his enemies’ list, especially when you are pointing out his genuine political vulnerability of the two McCain-Kennedy immigration bills, which many observers described as “amnesty.”
Here’s another indication of reaction to the angry McCain from National Review’s Andy McCarthy’s assessment of John McCain:
Moron Moment for McCain [Andy McCarthy]
… and why some of us will NEVER support him. Cheap shot at Romney (candidate of change) as a set up for saying what a really fine guy Obama is.
Roaming through the blogs, the overwhelming impression of this debate is a negative reaction to John McCain, a deepening feeling that reflects a politically disastrous fact: John McCain lacks the essential graciousness towards his critics and opponents that a president must have –the Reagan touch, the iron discipline that Bush has shown never to attack even his most partisan and harshest opponents in personal terms.
“McCain in particular seemed to go too far,” concluded the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber, “looking and sounding downright snide at times.”
“We’ll see if there’s a backlash among New Hampshire voters to the negativity soon enough,” wrote Michelle Malkin about McCain. “McCain was positively awful on immigration. He has not, not, not learned his lesson,” she continued. She’s right. The exchange between Romney and McCain on immigration was the key exchange of the debate, and Romney dominated the exchange because McCain is talking about and defending the McCain-Kennedy bill which was, is and will remain anathema to GOP voters, and Romney knew to blast McCain’s Z Visa by name, which resonates with the base that knew that visa was the ticket to stay in the U.S. forever. (Rudy didn’t help himself either by appearing to want to define amnesty down.)
John McCain seems incapable of not making politics personal and bitter. He also seems unwilling to take responsibility for the immigration fiasco, saying that “the people lost faith in government,” when in fact they overwhelmingly rejected his plan with his name on it. Thus McCain worked himself into a doubly negative corner: an off-putting defensiveness manifesting itself in bitter snideness while refusing to deal with the overwhelming unpopularity of his plan among Republicans.
McCain isn’t doing well. He was actually channeling John Edwards there for a couple of minutes while he was demonizing the pharmaceutical companies. McCain was also extremely defensive and not very effective in defending McCain-Kennedy. While not being defensive, he’s being snarky….
McCain: Big loser. I know he can do better than this–I’ve seen it. This was possibly the worst debate performance of the campaign.
Romney: Winner, possibly big winner. Demonstrated clear grasp of the issues, turned attacks to his advantage, dispelled the notion that his positions are tactical by explaining them better than anyone else could. Made McCain look bad. Deficiency? Didn’t play Eruption lead guitar solo.
So, how does it impact the New Hampshire voting? John McCain gave undecideds lots of reasons why they may not want to vote for him, why they may want to vote Democratic this year for the positive Obama. He also reminded every New Hampshire voter who cares about immigration that they cannot vote for McCain.
Mike Huckabee didn’t look or sound like a candidate coming off an upset win, but like a guy who knows he has to help McCain. “Tag team” is a term ricocheting around the sphere, and Huckabee blew his chance to try and expand beyond the hard-core identity politics that worked with evangelicals in Iowa.
Fred may have picked up some previous McCain supporters turned off by the McCain’s tone and by the reminder about McCain’s immigration views, and Romney may have picked up some of them as well.
But the key is that Romney didn’t lose a single supporter and may have picked up many who watched him handle the barrage while displaying a command of the immigration and health care issues while looking presidential throughout.
I don’t often agree with Dick Morris, but tonight he was right.
UPDATE: Dan Riehl sends along the video of focus group reaction to one of McCain’s snide asides.