Off to the Races

This week the Republican candidates for the presidency tried to make it new again. Summer’s over, autumn’s here, they’re relaunching. I think they pretty much succeeded. Their debate Wednesday night had sparks and fire. And a new candidate moved in.

So while Barack Obama struggles with a big question of his candidacy—how to draw deep blood from Hillary Clinton without fatally endangering his future in the party and earning the enmity of its power brokers; and Mrs. Clinton figures out each day how to slow him and stop him but not right now squish him like a bug, which would highlight a reputation for ruthlessness and embitter a portion of the base—a look at the Republicans in what was a Republican week.

The debate was full of fireworks about Iraq, about its essentials—the rightness of the endeavor, and what should rightly be done now. From the libertarian Ron Paul a blunt argument against the war: We never should have gone in and we should get out. “The people who say there’ll be a blood bath are the same ones who said it would be a cakewalk. . . . Why believe them?” His foreign policy: “Mind our own business, bring our troops home, defend our country, defend our borders.” After Mr. Paul spoke, it seemed half the room booed, but the other applauded. When a thousand Republicans are in a room and one man of the eight on the stage takes a sharply minority viewpoint on a dramatic issue and half the room seems to cheer him, something’s going on.

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Ron Paul’s support isn’t based on his persona, history or perceived power. What support he has comes because of his views. As he spoke, you could hear other candidates laughing in the background. They should stop giggling, and engage in a serious way.

Sparks fly between Mike Huckabee and Ron PaulMike Huckabee, and for this I ♥ Huckabee, shot back that history will judge whether we were right to go in, but for now, “we’re there.” He echoed Colin Powell: We broke it, now we own it. “Congressman, we are one nation. We can’t be divided. . . . If we make a mistake, we make it as a single country, the United States of America, not the divided states of America.” David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network says he doesn’t know why Mr. Huckabee isn’t in the top tier. I wonder too. Maybe he is and we don’t know it.

John McCain seems liberated by loss. Once he was the front-runner, then he was over. Unburdened by the pressure to do well, he has rediscovered the pleasures of the trail. The other day when a student was impertinent, he pleasantly responded, “Thanks for the question, you little jerk.” It reminded me of the time Mayor Rudy Giuliani told an insistent radio caller who pressed for the legalization of ferrets that he probably cared about the issue because he was insane.

In the debate, Mr. McCain was spirited—we stay and fight in Iraq, “otherwise we face catastrophe and genocide in the region.” Fox News’s focus group said he won. As he retools, he should speak of Reagan in 1976, when he was washed up in South Carolina and said, “I’m taking this all the way to the convention, and I’m going even if I lose every damn primary between now and then.”

Mitt Romney is—well, he continues to seem like someone who’s stepped from the shower and been handed a dress shirt by his manservant George. He’s like a senior account executive on “Mad Men.” Still the most focused and disciplined of all the Republicans, he did fine the other night. But he should get shirt-sleeved, dig deeper, get to his purpose. He had the best quips about Fred Thompson’s decision to get in, telling reporters, “Why the hurry? Why not take a little longer to think this over? From my standpoint, if he wants to wait until January or February, that would be ideal.”

Rudy Giuliani proved it is possible to bang the gong too much on leading New York City. Enough already, we heard you, move on. Then come back to it in a few months and make it new again. For now, can he be thoughtful about foreign affairs? Not forceful, not pugnacious, not rote, but thoughtful. No one knows quite what he thinks, as opposed to feels.

Duncan Hunter was there. So was Tom Tancredo, who shouldn’t be. When you can’t compellingly break through with the issue that most roils the base, and on which you were a leader and in agreement with the roiled, then you should admit it didn’t work, and leave. But whom he throws his support to—who he decides has an immigration stand he can back—might have some significant impact on primary voters.

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For Fred Thompson, spurning the debate and announcing on Leno was rude and shrewd. He loped on like a long, tall, folksy fella and got a good burst of applause from the audience when he said he was running. The Web video was fine, the 60-second commercial unveiled Wednesday too self-consciously presidential. A young journalist brutally remarked to me of the makeup and lighting, “He looks like a skull on a Disney pirate ride.”

He faces three big challenges. He has come in saying, essentially, I’m not the other guys. That’s good, but raises the questions: Who are you? And the reason you’re running for president would be . . .?

Second challenge: You can come to the rescue only when someone calls “Help!” You can save the drowning guy only when he falls through the ice; you can’t do it when he’s skating by and giving you a friendly nod. Three and six months ago, the Republican Party was looking at its slate of candidates and shouting, “Help!” Since then, the candidates have been out there making an impression, getting known, declaring their stands. They’ve found supporters.

Is the party still yelling “Help!”? Is it falling through the ice?

A third challenge, I think, is a certain dissonance in Mr. Thompson’s persona. He seems preoccupied, not full of delight that he’s at the party. John McCain has been having sly fun with the idea of Mr. Thompson’s sluggishness. When asked why Mr. Thompson didn’t come to the debate, Mr. McCain said “Maybe we’re up past his bedtime.”

I felt this week, and to my surprise, that the campaign was focusing itself, tightening in some way, getting serious. The next Republican debate, the first one with Mr. Thompson, is Sept. 17, in New Hampshire. The first real voting, in Iowa and New Hampshire, is in only four months. For all our complaints about the endless campaign, this one may catch us short. It may get decided when we aren’t watching—knowing, as everyone told us, that we had plenty of time to start paying attention. This could move quickly. Got to watch now.