To me the highlight (lowlight?) of Tuesday night's GOP debate was the "Who wants to be a waterboarder?" segment, in which virtually everyone but Sen. John McCain tried to seem the candidate most enthusiastic about torture. In War Room during the debate, our Walter Shapiro aptly noted that 2008 could be shaping up to be "the torture primary" among Republican candidates. Sickening.
But another moment with ripples beyond Tuesday came when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the man the Onion says is running to be "president of 9/11," tore into Rep. Ron Paul after Paul suggested American foreign policy, particularly our post-1991 attacks on Iraq, was a factor behind al-Qaida's attacks on the U.S. The mayor of 9/11 is a well-known bully, and he teed off on Paul immediately. "That's really an extraordinary statement," Giuliani interrupted Paul. "That's an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq." The crowd rewarded Giuliani with applause, and he went on. "I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn't really mean that." The feisty -- some would say eccentric -- Paul refused, and he's been beaten up by Giuliani supporters and Iraq war flacks for his remarks ever since. Even McCain praised Giuliani's assault on Paul this week.
But Paul has picked up support in other quarters, and that has some Republicans irritated. He's been Technorati.com's top search term much of this week; he's got more YouTube followers than any other GOP candidate, and he's apparently got savvy enough online supporters that he won the post-debate poll at MSNBC.com and came in second at Fox. The Iraq war hawks at Littlegreenfootballs.com are not amused; they banned Paul from their poll Tuesday night when they saw he was winning, claiming his supporters were "spamming" them. Over at Pajamas Media they banned Paul from their poll, too, citing his barely measurable support in major opinion polls like Gallup. The chairman of the Michigan Republican Party is trying to keep Paul out of future debates, according to the Associated Press, because of his remarks about 9/11. Big Bill Bennett agrees.
It's all led to a fascinating intra-right dust-up, with Brent Bozell's Cyber News Service publishing a piece today hyping Paul's online support. (That's where I learned about Littlegreenfootballs.com and Pajamas Media banning Paul from their polls.) "This is not a handful of people," Paul spokesman Jesse Benton told CNS. "This is a grassfire movement." I'm not sure that Paul's online support is as big as the CNS.com piece suggests, but it's certainly motivated, as the National Review's Byron York learned when he attacked Paul for his 9/11 remarks after the debate. York got "a groundswell of e-mails" from Paul supporters, leading him to concede, "Paul may not have a lot of supporters out there, but the ones he has are intense." Shades of Howard Dean's defense forces in 2003? Maybe, although Dean's defenders (who targeted me when I was insufficiently respectful of his candidacy) tended to be more polite than the e-mails York got from Paul's brigades.
Andrew Sullivan has been paying attention to the maybe-groundswell for Paul, as well as the shameful GOP effort to distort what he said about 9/11. I think he overestimates Paul's support, but he's right to do battle with conservatives who are smearing Paul about his opposition to the war, and what he said about the roots of the 9/11 attacks. It's worth noting that, as was the case with Howard Dean in 2003, the two candidates who've spoken most clearly against the Iraq war in the early debates -- Mike Gravel and Paul -- are getting the big surge of attention online. I don't think either man has a prayer of being nominated, but both candidates' online fan clubs show the hunger Americans in both parties feel for straight talk about the disaster of this war, as well as the foreign policy that led to it. Efforts to muzzle Paul are cowardly, and will backfire on the GOP.