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By Jay Cost

« When Republicans Attack! | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | Debate Ratings »

On the GOP Debate

I have to say that I enjoyed this debate. It must have been because journalists were not asking the questions. And so - the discussion was geared toward giving voters information about the candidates' policy positions. CNN did, of course, allow a few questions to go through that were either not designed to help the Republican electorate make their choices (e.g. will Ron Paul run as an indy?), or designed to trap the candidates (e.g. is the Bible literally true?). Nevertheless, they did not play too heavy a hand - and the debate was better off for it.

As I have said time and again, it is ridiculous to score these debates - to identify who won on debating points, and to infer from that who helped their electoral fortunes. But one thing that we can do is note who attacked whom. The reason this activity can have value is that it can give us a sense of what these candidates perceive their relative positions to be. As the primary process is essentially a war of attrition, this is valuable information indeed - especially for a race as complicated as the Republican one is (on the Democratic side...it is kind of obvious!).

This kind of count is all the more salient because CNN did relatively little to induce candidates to hit one another.

I kept rough track of the hits (defined as a specific critique of another candidate, indicated either by name or by a clear gesture) in the debate. This is what I observed.

(1) There was a total of seventeen "hits" on one candidate against another. All of them were policy based, i.e. designed to highlight issue contrasts between candidates. In particular, all of the hits were designed to indicate that a given candidate deviates from the GOP's median position, i.e. where the average Republican stands.

(2) More than half of these hits - nine of seventeen - were on immigration. Few of these were actually prompted by CNN. This is a sign that these candidates recognize the salience of the issue to the Republican electorate. Again - all of these attacks were designed to indicate that the candidate deviated from the median Republican position on the issue.

(3) Giuliani seemed like the frontrunner, at least in terms of attacks. He was attacked more than any candidate - six times. And he attacked only attacked Romney twice (as many times as he attacked Hillary Clinton). Both hits regarded immigration.

(4) Romney acted like more of a challenger tonight. He made five hits - against Rudy (twice) and Huckabee (thrice). Thus, we saw pretty clearly here that Romney perceives both Huckabee and Giuliani to be threats to his candidacy. What is more, all of Romney's hits occurred during the immigration exchanges at the beginning of the debate.

(5) Huckabee launched only one attack - against Romney. This was done in response to one of Romney's hits.

(6) Thompson was on the attack tonight - indicating that he sees the other major candidates as a challenge. He hit Romney twice, Rudy twice, and Huckabee once.

(7) No candidate attacked Thompson.

(8) McCain was also on the attack. He hit Romney and Rudy, though (quite obviously) not on immigration. Interestingly, he also hit Paul twice. I wondered about this. Was it just because McCain could not resist the low-hanging fruit? Or, on the other hand, perhaps McCain senses that Paul could steal independents in New Hampshire. It is hard to say. Paul is probably a problem for McCain in New Hampshire. But then again, McCain seems to me to be the type of guy who could not resist smacking Paul around.

(9) No candidate attacked McCain.

(10) One thing I did not mention in yesterday's column was that would-be spoiler candidates tend not to launch attacks. True to form - Paul, Tancredo, and Hunter did not attack any of the five major candidates.

All in all - the debate seemed to me to be consistent with the observations that we have made with the mediated attacks. To summarize:

(i) Romney seems to perceive Giuliani and Huckabee - but not McCain or Thompson - as threats.
(ii) Giuliani seems to perceive Romney as a threat. He saved his attacks for him.
(iii) Huckabee seems to perceive Romney as a threat - or, maybe better put, as a target. Like Giuliani, he saved his attacks for him.
(iv) Thompson and McCain seem not to threaten the major candidates. Nevertheless, both perceive others as threats.

What we seem to have, then, is a five man race. There are two leading contenders, and three long shots, one of whom is on the rise.

-Jay Cost