The GOP contenders were back at it Tuesday night with their second debate on national security issues this month. It was an unusual format -- questions from gray eminences at two conservative think-tanks sponsoring the session -- that made the evening feel a little like a graduate school seminar. But it did advance the competition among the candidates in several respects. Here are five of the most important:
- What a difference a surge in the polls makes. Newt Gingrich, freshly minted as the GOP front-runner in a CNN/ORC poll released Monday, radiated Olympian self-assurance in Tuesday night’s debate. With his emphatic answers and sweeping promises to address “core issues” and “break out of the current mindless bureaucracy of this city” Gingrich gave GOP primary voters their clearest flashback yet to the imperially self-confident figure who barreled through Washington in the 1980s and 1990s, once describing himself “as a transformational figure” and at another point declaring: “I have enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it.” Repeatedly insisting that the nation had to rise above “the tactical” in its foreign policy decisions, Gingrich left little doubt that he believed only one figure on the stage had the vision to achieve that longer perspective. For much of the debate, Gingrich’s intellectual bravado allowed him to hold center stage; it’s likely that the contest’s first 90 minutes solidified the advantage he’s opened over Mitt Romney in the most recent surveys as the candidate GOP voters consider best prepared to handle complex issues. But as was often true during his heyday, Gingrich’s tendency toward dramatic declarations led him into choppier waters in the debate’s final laps, which brings us to point two.
- Late in the debate, Gingrich precipitated the major new twist in the Republican race when he unexpectedly declared that he would allow illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for extended periods to obtain a legal status, though not full-scale citizenship. “I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter century, who have children and grandchildren, who are members of the community … [and] separate them from their families and expel them,” Gingrich insisted. Though polls suggest it’s likely a majority of the public overall might support such an idea, its reception in the Republican primary could be much more problematic, particularly among the tea party supporters who have provided the primary fuel for Gingrich’s rise. Rick Perry (who tentatively embraced Gingrich’s idea Tuesday while insisting it must wait until the borders are better secured) tumbled in the polls for supporting a considerably less incendiary proposal: providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. Romney, who must be tempted to pinch himself after a second rival to his right has provided him an opening on one of the most electric issues to conservatives, immediately denounced the idea as “amnesty,” though back in 2006 he expressed similar views himself. (Michele Bachmann quickly pounced, too.) Gingrich said he was “prepared to take the heat” for supporting some sort of legalization. It’s likely he won’t have to wait very long to prove it.
- The candidates disagreed on an array of other issues, but apart from immigration none of them appear likely to move many Republican voters. Like an earlier national security-debate co-sponsored by National Journal, Tuesday’s encounter revolved less around contrast than competence: that is, the test for the candidates was not so much drawing distinctions with each other as in convincing viewers that they could cross the threshold as a credible commander in chief. On that front, Gingrich, Romney and Jon Huntsman probably scored the highest. Perry still looked like someone trying to remember his note cards, and Herman Cain provided several vague and gauzy answers that seemed designed to consume his sixty seconds with the least possible risk either of a mistake or imparting any actual information. (He still had one: misstating moderator Wolf Blitzer’s name.) Ron Paul gave his faction in the party more reason to cheer with a spirited affirmation of libertarian McGovernism (Paul did everything but cry “Come home America”), but also deepened the gulf that separates him from most Republicans on most foreign policy issues.
- He’s denied it before, but could Huntsman, still barely keeping his head above asterisk level in national Republican polls, be considering an independent candidacy in the general election? His message and style in this debate seemed aimed less at Republican primary activists than at independent and unaligned voters equally disaffected from both parties. Repeatedly he lamented a “trust deficit” afflicting “institutions of power that we no longer believe in.” If there is an independent candidate in 2012, it’s likely that such a theme will be at the center of their campaign.
- The debate captured Romney’s approach on most domestic and foreign policy issues -- an approach that resembles the strategy of “drafting” behind the leaders in a cycling race. On issues such as Pakistan and Iran, Romney consistently took positions slightly less conservative than the most ideological of his rivals. Consistently it appears he settles in a position not so conservative that he provides an easy target to President Obama if he wins the nomination, but not so moderate that he provides his opponents an easy target in the primaries. The big exception of course was immigration, where Romney moved immediately Tuesday to outflank Gingrich on the right, just as he did Perry. How Gingrich handles the tumultuous reaction that his qualified legalization proposal will almost certainly ignite will determine whether he can hold his position as Romney’s major challenger any longer than the previous aspirants for the job -- Bachmann, Perry and Cain.