The political expectations game is a silly thing -- as fickle as the whims of a high school cheerleader, and often twice as inconsequential.
I'm not quite sure who decided that GOP front-runner Gov. George W. Bush had completely blown his first two debate performances. He was perfectly adequate, if uninspired. But now that the third full debate is over, one in which he performed more sure-footedly, headlines will no doubt reflect the return of the man to his mighty hype.
Viewing all through the prism of the front-runner, pundits in the media room could be heard observing the performances of publisher Steve Forbes and Arizona Sen. John McCain as comatose and lackadaisical, respectively, and since they think it, it must be so.
But in the eyes of Iowans, it's just reporters hungry for a fight. The most recent Mason Dixon poll of likely Iowa GOP caucus voters conducted over the weekend had Bush with 49 percent, Forbes with 22 percent, and McCain with 8 percent. (McCain does not have a campaign operation in Iowa, focusing his limited resources on New Hampshire and South Carolina.)
Indeed, all eyes were on W. as caravans of reporters and cameramen invaded the 30th most populated state for the last Republican debate of 1999. (The next is scheduled for Jan. 6.) The day before the debate, held Monday night at the Greater Des Moines Civic Center and sponsored by WHO-TV and NBC, shots were fired by three contender wanna-bes on the Sunday chat shows.
On CNN's "Late Edition," commentator Alan Keyes said that Bush doesn't have "the depth of understanding to articulate the relationship between this country's moral principles and the great serious practical issues." On ABC's "This Week," Christian activist Gary Bauer challenged Bush to rule out any running mate who doesn't share his anti-abortion viewpoint. Also on "This Week," Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch renewed his charge that Bush was too inexperienced to be president.
But when the dust had settled after Monday's 90-minute debate, host Tom Brokaw had finished thanking the candidates, NBC finally cut to a commercial, and the candidates were shuttled in one after the other to offer their post-mortems, Bush had temporarily silenced them -- on camera, at least.
As is so often the case, the media room is where the real interesting stuff went down Monday night. It's a shame that NBC didn't just rerun "Law & Order" during the debate and secretly run the cameras when the candidates didn't think any real people were watching.
Bauer started gunning for more immediate short-term game, calling into question publisher Steve Forbes' commitment to banning abortion. McCain, put on the defensive during the debate by Bush on taxes, seemed flummoxed with a question on the subject and leaned too easily on his charm to deflect that fact. And Alan Keyes clarified that he hadn't answered "Jesus Christ" for a question about who his favorite philosopher/thinker was because God is far more than just a philosopher/thinker.
Not that the debate itself didn't provide for some entertaining and illuminating back and forth among the candidates. As past formats had been criticized -- even by some of the candidates -- as too stilted and formal, Brokaw presided over a much freer-flowing night of discourse.
Candidates were not only questioned by Brokaw and WHO-TV news anchor John Bachman, but one segment required that they question each other. And as a pretty neat trick, Brokaw hauled out the Iowa Republican Party's ultra-conservative platform -- which opposes the involvement of women in the U.S. military, for instance -- and grilled the candidates on how much each agreed with the policy pronouncements of the organization hosting the night's debate.
The interesting subtext of the evening, other than the one about Bush's feet of clay, dealt with McCain, who is leading Bush in New Hampshire in some polls, and has made a point of not competing in the Jan. 24 Iowa Caucus.
McCain, who has been lapped by Bush in fund-raising at least six times, is choosing to focus his energies on a few early primary states, Iowa not among them.
"First of all, welcome to Iowa," Brokaw joked to McCain at the start of the night. But in typical fashion, McCain took full advantage of the freedom he has from not competing in Iowa to rail against the multimillion-dollar ethanol subsidy local farmers receive from the federal government.
"I'm here to tell you the things you want to hear and some of the things you don't want to hear," McCain said, playing the role of maverick he has cast for himself in this race. "And one of those things is ethonol." Bush and Hatch then jumped over each other to rush to the defense of the subsidy, a sure-fire applause line in front of Iowa Republicans.
Brokaw, ever the anchor, played his assigned role as well, leading with the day's top story, the Time Magazine report of the videotapes made by Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in which they discuss the video game their slaughter will mimic, and the film directors they'd like to present their life story.
Echoing the hopelessness felt by millions of Americans after the April 20 shooting, Brokaw asked what could be done. All of the candidates slammed our increasingly coarse culture. McCain alone raised the possibility of gun control, discussing "smart gun" technology along with Internet filtering systems -- though the bulk of his remarks derided the "pernicious influences being felt by our children" which robs them "of their most precious treasure that's their innocence."
Bush said he wished he "could make a law to make people love one another because I'd sign it," though he offered little in the way of legislative remedies.
Bauer, Keyes, Hatch and Forbes agreed that a culture where abortion is legal is already treading down an amoral path.
From there, the questions covered a range of topics from Medicare to China to the World Trade Organization.
After a chunk of time had passed without any questions about the family farm, Bauer raised the issue, saying he didn't want to leave the state without discussing the farm crisis. At that point many of the candidates praised ethanol as a renewable energy source.
Bush, governor of the state containing the newly crowned smoggiest city in America, Houston, said that ethanol was "good for our air." Keyes noted that "people look at the family farm as if the only thing we get from the family farm is food," whereas the family farm is home to "individuality and a commitment to the community."
But beneath the genial goodwill lurked hunger and even anger, and at times -- especially as the candidates entered phase two when they could question one another -- the presidential hopefuls tweaked one another with pointed remarks.
Bush, beginning a remark by noting that Bauer opposes his position on admitting China into the World Trade Organization, received an interrupting reply from Bauer. Bush responded that he had merely been making the comment rhetorically.
"It's hard to tell with you sometimes, governor," Bauer said.
Soon after, Bauer again went after Bush, trying to get the front-runner to commit to not naming a pro-choice running mate like the most demonized woman of the evening, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a pro-choice Republican Bauer characterized as waiting by the phone for Bush's call.
But Bush didn't take the bait. Calling it "presumptive" (somebody please get this man a dictionary) for a hopeful to start talking about running mates, the more than occasionally Clintonesque governor side-stepped the issue entirely.
The candidate give-and-take sometimes strayed into lameness -- like when Forbes asked Bauer if he shared his hostility toward the International Monetary Fund, which Bauer did, kind of. Or curiosity, as when Keyes heralded Microsoft and asked Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Hatch how on earth he could agree with the government's "socialist" lawsuit against the new-media beast.
But the most telling moment came when Bush finally took off the gloves and gingerly took on McCain, acknowledging the strong challenge his candidacy is posing (at least in New Hampshire) and fairly effectively slapping him on the issue of taxes.
"You've been talking a lot about pork in Washington," Bush said, noting that his philosophy is that "if you want to get rid of pork, stop feeding the hog." Recalling the hypothetical low-income single mother who would be helped by his tax cut proposal, and noting that McCain called Bush's proposal "excessive," Bush said that "in reviewing your plan, the single mom gets no tax cut."
In the media room, Bush aides scurried from table to table with figures showing that this "single mother with two kids making $40,000" -- from now on, let's just call her Gladys -- would pay $1,310 in income taxes under President Bush, and $2,810 under President McCain.
Later, McCain noted that he had voted against every single tax increase "including the one offered by [Bush's] father." On stage, however, he blinked. He recovered quickly, however, returning the conversation to the influence of "special interests," and trying to get Bush to commit to refusing party "soft money" if he becomes the nominee -- an agreement he is making with a Democratic presidential aspirant, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, on Thursday.
Bush demurred, saying that McCain's plan would hurt Republicans unless it would include paycheck-protection for union members who don't want their dues going to political activities. Again, McCain's best response to this came later when he noted that "everybody opposed to campaign finance reform says it's because 'you're not doing this,' or 'you're not doing that.' But it's another issue in which Americans should [use to] make a decision" about their choice in candidates."
Other spirited moments made this the best of the three full GOP debates so far. Pressed by McCain as to why he would advocate no military involvement in Chechnya, Keyes noted that McCain wasn't asking him about a far bloodier conflict in Sudan. "I'm not going to suggest that it's because the people dying there are black," Keyes said, completely suggesting that it was because the people dying there are black.
But Keyes' fiery rhetoric offered a moment of levity as well. After Keyes advocated the repeal of the income tax, calling it irrelevant as to whether the tax is imposed by "a nice politician like Mr. Bush or a bad politician like Bill Clinton" -- Bush breathed a sigh of relief that he had been spared.
"At least he called me nice," Bush said.
But it was the stiff, upright Hatch who got off possibly the best line of the evening. Noting that a comment Hatch had made "usually means 'Hold your wallet,'" Forbes was flummoxed when Hatch rejoined "Steve, I couldn't even lift your wallet."
Apparently under the impression that Gov. Whitman is the Antichrist, Forbes tried to tar Bush with her pending endorsement, while Bauer then noted that Forbes once was strongly allied with her.
When the candidates were asked which philosopher or thinker had most influenced them, Forbes offered John Locke, and McCain said Teddy Roosevelt, but Bush said "Christ -- because he changed my heart."
When asked to elaborate for the benefit of non-Christians, Bush said, "If they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain."
Maybe he can't explain Jesus, but after Bush's strong performance Monday night, he probably spent the rest of the night thanking him.