What to watch for in the GOP debate

Supposedly the candidates can't afford to dis the president. But will anybody deviate from Karl Rove's game plan of pandering to a tiny right-wing base and scaring the rest of us?

Published May 3, 2007 9:13PM (EDT)

I've already shared my excitement about the early 2008 campaign, as well as my very unpopular enjoyment of MSNBC's Chris Matthews, so yes, I'm looking forward to the Matthews-moderated GOP debate tonight. Unlike the Democrats, Republicans don't have a front-runner who can afford to play it safe. Where Hillary Clinton won last Thursday night by not losing, Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain don't have that luxury. They're both running bad campaigns to this point, with the morning news dominated by new polls showing the popularity of a guy who isn't in the race yet, former Sen. Fred Thompson. So they both need to shore up their candidacies with a memorable debate performance.

The other fun fact about this debate is that while nobody can afford to be Hillary Clinton, almost everyone has a chance to be Mike Gravel, including the two GOP front-runners, who are prone to anger as well as foot-in-mouth disease. I don't expect McCain to sing "Bomb Iran" tonight, but he also won't be able to simply filibuster like he did last week with Jon Stewart. Giuliani's been giving rambling, self-indulgent speeches and tying himself in knots over squaring his pro-choice past with his promise to appoint Antonin Scalia-style strict constructionists. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney doesn't seem prone to Gravel-like anger, although he's got to be mad he lost third place in today's polls to Thompson, after winning the money primary. The second-tier guys -- and they're all guys, and all white, and all 50-plus; more reasons the Democrats have the better field -- have to make an impression, and since the conventional wisdom says they can't bash President Bush (more on that in a minute) they're more likely to take on the guys in front.

I'm not likely to be a Republican primary voter, so I'm not these guys' target audience, but I find myself wondering about the idea that they can't criticize Bush. Even if I accept the notion that they can't afford to repudiate the president, I don't see why they can't at least repudiate Karl Rove, and his supposedly brilliant strategy of pandering to a relatively small, extremely conservative base of voters and turning them out, even if you wind up scaring the hell out of the rest of the country in the process. It seems to me that strategy has run the Republicans into a ditch. Yet all 10 candidates are either taking, or playing up, extreme positions on choice, immigration, personal freedom and privacy issues, as well as the hugely unpopular war in Iraq, and playing down any positions (McCain on immigration; Giuliani on abortion) that might put them in the mainstream but anger the base. Democrats get rapped by pundits all too often for supposedly being captives of their lefty base (I don't buy the premise of that argument, but you hear it from the punditocracy daily) and praised for so-called Sister Souljah moments. So why are Republicans usually given a pass by the MSM on the way they absolutely pander to right-wing extremists?

It may well be in vain, but I'll be watching to see if anyone does anything courageous in this debate. Sure, it's their introduction to the GOP primary voters, but it would be nice if they remembered it's the first time most of them will be meeting the American voters, too. Will any of them take a risk and defy the base, in order to reach independents or -- God forbid -- Democrats? We'll soon see.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections