In an effort to put up with such a very long campaign season, many of us have been telling ourselves that starting so early will at least give the candidates a chance to hone their skills and give voters a chance to really get a sense of what’s on offer in 2008. Tuesday night was the first time that notion actually seemed plausible. Thanks in no small part to the format and the moderators, this was a serious and interesting debate, the first one of the campaign, in either party.
The basic lesson I took away was that the three top-tier candidates are in the top tier for a reason. McCain, Romney, and Giuliani all carry themselves with a presidential gravity, and are all fairly lucid and well-honed on most issues. The only second-tier candidate who seemed to belong with them was Mike Huckabee, who may well have come in second in this debate.
But if so he was a distant second. This was Giuliani’s night. Romney and McCain made almost no errors, and said what they needed to say, but Giuliani did more than that. He took command on several occasions, and whenever he was called on he had something sharp to say. His abortion answer (while surely still expressing a view I disagree with) finally sounded like he had actually given it thought, and on a whole range of issues he was able to project the image that made him popular in the first place. Giuliani still confronts a monumental task: persuading the base of the party to overlook his disagreement with them on an enormous range of domestic issues. But he certainly helped himself in this debate.
— Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.