Thanks to a well-meaning supporter who tuned the TV to the wrong channel, John McCain's closest advisors nearly wound up watching "The Simpsons" (on Fox) instead of "The Republicans" (on Fox News) tonight.
It was fixed just about the time Bart started writing on the chalkboard. But even if the watch party McCain's campaign held never found the right channel (I crashed it, since it was next door to my hotel), supporters and advisors wouldn't have missed much in terms of news from the third debate, and second among the GOP, held on the campus of Saint Anselm College in the last 24 hours. This one, closed to the public and the non-Murdoch press alike, differed from the Saturday night event mostly by the lack of the Ron Paul Revolution. Fox producers didn't invite him, so the five contenders who were there -- McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson -- were left without the walking, talking GOP straw man who drove so much of the conversation the night before.
That meant most of them got to continue the game they started Saturday -- beating up on Romney. Even Fox joined in. At one point, they went Russert, showing a graphic during a debate over immigration that backed up McCain's claim that Romney used to think comprehensive immigration reform wasn't amnesty. At another, they ran a highlight reel of Romney's "contrast" ads, which didn't come off as flattering.
On the whole, the debate was a little gentler than the night before. McCain, whom Romney aides accused of "sniping" at their man on Saturday, stayed cheerful for most of the show. Asked about Romney's charges that a longtime senator can't bring "change," McCain talked about his own record without getting in a dig like the one he couldn't pass up Saturday. Then, he zinged Romney for changing positions on issues; tonight, he said he had brought about "one of the most important changes in recent years," by criticizing the strategy for the war in Iraq. He did veer, in the same answer, into territory most Republican voters don't like much, taking credit for his campaign finance reform legislation, but he recovered to talk about the line-item veto in the same sentence.
When he finished by saying he was proud of the change in Iraq that had "saved American lives," and moderator Chris Wallace asked Romney to respond, he started out with, "I'd amend that slightly." While Romney did a much better job tonight of hitting his own talking points than he had the night before, the barrage of questions from Wallace and the (muted) barbs from rivals didn't help him. All in all, the crowd at the Crowne Plaza here was pleased -- no matter who does it, if Romney gets torn down, McCain benefits.
The usually affable Huckabee scolded Romney at one point, when Romney tried to ask why he supported discounted college tuition for some undocumented immigrants. "I'm talking to Chris right now," Huckabee said. He pushed back on Romney for some of the heat he got back in Iowa over pardons, spending and taxes. But certainly, his strangest moment came when Thompson asked him about the estate tax. "You going to get rid of death?" Thompson asked. "I would like to do that," said the only candidate in the race who might claim a direct line to God to make the effort. Thompson and Giuliani got less focus than the others from Wallace, and almost none from their rivals.
As for Romney -- maybe it was just because I listened to a Hillary Clinton campaign conference call right before watching the Fox debate, but at times it sounded like Romney was starting to channel Clinton on the topic of change, that most prized commodity in this year's elections. "This isn't just something I've talked about, it's something I've done," Romney said. "You can select somebody who wants to fight for those things, or you can select somebody who's actually done those things." Devoid of context, it could have been Clinton talking about John Edwards or Barack Obama.
Both former front-runners are having trouble shifting their messages in reaction to the Iowa results. New polls out just before the debate showed McCain and Obama solidly in front of Romney and Clinton. If even Fox News is turning against Romney, things are looking grim for him indeed.
But don't take my word for it. The Republicans debate again on Thursday night, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Tune in to see if they find a new punching bag.