And the winner is ...

Fred Thompson, the Democrats and Brian Williams.

Published May 4, 2007 12:54AM (EDT)

The gulf between the GOP presidential candidates and the American people was clearest during the debate when Chris Matthews reminded the group that their hostess Nancy Reagan supports federal funding for stem cell research, as most American voters do. One by one the candidates told Mrs. Reagan they disagreed with her. Finally John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, hemming and hawing some, said they support certain kinds of federal stem cell research funding -- I think. But neither man used the opportunity to give such research a ringing endorsement, even with the political cover provided by Reagan's presence. Later McCain was asked if he believed in evolution, and he had to pause and think before finally replying "Yes." (Phew!) But when the question was opened to the entire field, three of the men -- Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo and one other Republican I think was Mike Huckabee; they didn't hold the shot long enough -- said they did not.

Against that backdrop, after blowing the Roe v. Wade question, Giuliani gets a few make-up points for quietly and nervously telling the crowd that while he opposes abortion personally, "I would respect a woman's right to make that choice differently." McCain, Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Tommy Thompson said Congress was wrong to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case; Brownback and Tancredo said Congress did the right thing. Maybe the GOP has learned a tiny political lesson since former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (where is he now?) diagnosed Schiavo after seeing videos of her and endorsed efforts to keep her alive. Yes, I'm an optimist.

There were few surprises. McCain may get points for more "straight talk," but to me he just seemed angry, and he will likely regret his sound bite saying "We're on the right track" in Iraq down the road; Romney is still an empty suit for me, though it was nice to see him embrace his own Massachussetts healthcare reform after appearing to run away from it, but otherwise he was a smile and a haircut (did he remind anyone else of Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy?); Giuliani was wildly uneven, sometimes shaky, sometimes strong, but never presidential, and he couldn't have helped himself with any constituency for his wide range of answers on abortion; none of the second-tier candidates jumped out from the pack. The clear winner: Fred Thompson. And the Democrats.

No debate on the debate format; it was bad from start to finish. Last week NBC's Brian Williams at least controlled the terms and the tempo with discipline. Chris Matthews' desire to be liked came through, and he had a hard time cutting people off, so many of the candidates got more time than allotted. He all but turned over the mike to Gov. Tommy Thompson at one point, telling him, "Actually, you can respond to anything you want," and Thompson gave a stump speech. Matthews also asked an unforgivable softball, cheap-shot question, "Would it be a good thing for the country to have Bill Clinton back in the White House?" and let the chuckling Republicans tee off. Democrats definitely got tougher treatment.

On the other hand, some Republicans might complain that their candidates didn't get tougher treatment. They certainly weren't served by letting it all hang out.

By Joan Walsh

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