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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg analysis: The Iowa GOP debate

By Stuart Rothenberg

December 16, 1999
Web posted at: 3:07 p.m. EST (2007 GMT)

The third Republican debate within two weeks produced more sparks (as the candidates aimed shots at each other), more talk of or references to religion, and a stronger performance by Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Bush, again the focus of attention as he was during recent Republican debates in New Hampshire and Arizona, seemed less programmed and far more natural. Not relying as heavily on over-used cliches, and more aggressive in defending his comments and criticizing his opponents, Bush clearly improved on his first two debate performances.

Still, the Texas governor had an odd answer or two, such as when he identified "Christ" as a philosopher who influenced him. The answer, which was also given by Gary Bauer and Orrin Hatch, may well have resonated well with Iowa and national religious conservatives, but it wasn't really responsive to the question. Only Steve Forbes, who cited John Locke, answered the question by citing someone generally regarded as a philosopher.

Most of the other debate participants took at least one shot at Bush, but the governor once again refused to yield any ground. He rejected Gary Bauer's call on him to pledge to pick a pro-life running mate, and he challenged Bauer's view on how to treat China in trade policy.

But if Bush looked more authoritative and combative than in early debates, he clearly has not put to rest questions about his intellectual depth and debate skills. He will have to do even better in future debates to do so, and it is likely that reporters will be looking for reasons to raise questions about his knowledge and preparedness for the presidency.

Sen. John McCain had another solid performance. The senator once again showed himself to be "independent" -- this time by taking on ethanol subsidies -- and he reiterated his support for campaign finance reform and his intent to take on the "special interests."

None of the candidates plowed new ground. Forbes continued to position himself as the conservative political outsider who rejects the Washington conventional wisdom. Bauer and former ambassador Alan Keyes once again spent considerable time talking about abortion. In fact, Bauer seemed to downplay some of his economic populism to emphasize moral issues.

Have the last three GOP debates changed the GOP race? Yes. At the very least, they have raised questions about Bush and confirmed McCain as his main opponent. The debates have also given Forbes, Bauer, Keyes and Orrin Hatch exposure and an opportunity to contrast themselves with each other and with front runner Bush.

While the second-tier candidates showed energy, passion, and a flair for rhetoric, they remain little more than political curiosities who haven't expanded their appeal.

If newspaper reports that McCain has raised about $16 million are true, that fund raising reflects McCain's early successes and gives him enough ammunition to make his case in the early primaries. But even when he receives matching funds after the first of the year, McCain will still trail Bush badly in funds.

Bush remains the clear GOP front runner, but at least the race is now interesting.

Full card of Republican presidential pugilists preps for round three (12-13-99) Des Moines Register: Challengers attack Bush on eve of debate (12-13-99)



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Thursday, December 16, 1999

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