Not only did this presidential campaign start awfully early, but it seems to be chock full of debates and town halls and candidate forums way out of proportion to any previous election that I can recall. In past elections, it often seemed like the candidates had to be dragged to debates and did everything they could to control their exposure to actual questions and potential confrontations. Every word they uttered was scripted and every situation they got into was handled to make sure that not one controversial word slipped out.
In this election it seems like the wheels are off and things are getting wilder by the minute. The candidates are hammering each other with unprecedented enthusiasm and the media is conspiring to create a circus atmosphere and involve the public in new and creative ways. They're getting debate questions from YouTube and interviews with people on the street and they're giving more coverage to the also-rans than I've ever seen before.
A lot of this seems to be the democratizing effect of the internet. People have more access, candidates want to use the new medium to their advantage and bloggers and partisan websites are driving the media to put on more of a show and often follow their lead in order to compete for attention. Some of the candidates are using the internet very effectively as a vehicle for building grass roots support, and that's making it difficult for the front runners to just sit back and let their bigger advertising budgets speak for them. It also helps that there are some potentially controversial and unconventional candidates in top spots in the polls.
This carnival atmosphere has started to infect the major televised debates, which are getting more contentious and more confrontational and in many ways more substantive than is traditional. Certainly this week's Republican debate in New Hampshire was a lot more raucous and a lot more entertaining than I would have expected. There were some heated exchanges, some pointed questions were asked and we got to see some substantive answers on important issues. There was still some dodging and misdirection, mostly from the top-tier candidates, but even they seem to be realizing that the campaign is a lot more wide-open than they expected and that they can't get away with offering nothing more than a bright smile and some platitudes. The people are demanding more and the candidates are starting to oblige.
New Hampshire is a state which leaned Republican in most elections until fairly recently, with a strong libertarian element in the population. It's the target state of the Free State Project and thousands of libertarians have moved there in recent years to exercise political influence in a receptive environment. It's a very politically active state with a lot of free-thinking Republicans. As one of the early primaries a lot of attention gets focused on it, events there get coverage and it helps set the tone for the rest of the primary season.
The most recent Republican debate generated some real heat. One of the high points was when Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) made a very cogent statement in opposition to gay marriage and was then soundly and thoroughly booed by the mostly Republican crowd, which had been vocal throughout the debate, but mostly in a much more positive way. Apparently the views on this and some other issues among Republicans in New Hampshire are quite different from those of Republicans back in Kansas. I'll admit that Brownback sounds good, but his message really isn't very appealing.
A big hit with the crowd – not surprisingly since he brings his own crowd with him wherever he goes – was Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX). The debate moderators actually gave him a lot of time and let him get his points out pretty completely. He said the usual things and added an interesting point about guns on planes. The video to the right is edited to make Paul look as good as possible, but watch for the exchange between Paul and Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR) about 5 minutes into it. It plays like a real debate, with both candidates clearly defining their positions and pulling no punches. Huckabee continues to come off as refreshingly honest and self-possessed. Of the lower tier candidates these two are the ones to watch. They're taking the risks and staking out real positions on the issues while the leaders just sort of sit back and watch.
The issue of national security again played a large role in the debate, and some candidates handled it better than others. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) managed to get out his anti-torture message effectively and Rudy Giuliani made some good points about the difficulty of repatriating terrorists, But Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-CO) who got the question first stumbled horribly before finally getting around to endorsing torture. He's becoming increasingly embarrassing. He ought to drop out. Other candidates appeal to his his hawkish, nativist constituency and do it more competently than he does. He's just not going anywhere. I suspect that he and the equally lackluster Duncan Hunter won't make it to the end of the year.
Of course, through the whole debate the 800 pound gorilla lurking in the corner was the just announced candidacy of former Senator Fred Thompson. The moderators acknowledged this with the very first question, where they gave everyone the chance to take a snipe at him, but they handled it relatively graciously, except for Paul who seemed kind of pissed off about Thompson, stressing their difference on the War in Iraq, avoiding the possibility that Thompson is a real threat to his base on many other issues.
Focus group surveys and polling right after the debate suggest that McCain won with Huckabee a close second. I'd disagree and put Huckabee first, even though I share very few of his views, except his support for the FairTax. He's honest and articulate and debates better than most of his opponents.
Not surprisingly, Ron Paul came in first in all the internet polls, bolstered by his strong contingent of online advocates. Paul has a very effective online campaign, but it is possible that it is doing more harm than good. People have begun to become annoyed at the small group of Ron Paul supporters who show up to post the identical plug for their candidate on every Yahoo group, YouTube comments space and blog they can find. They are perceived as fanatics from Paul's conspiracy-freak fringe contingent and many have started referring to them as 'Ron Paul Spammers'. Their behavior may be creating a growing backlash. The YouTube video to the right offers a simple but effective response to the Ron Paul Spammers.
As debates go, this was one of the best. The Democrats have not had any debates with this level of real discussion, and credit has to go to Ron Paul for raising issues the others won't talk about and taking an opposing position on many issues. Enjoy real debates with candidates talking about issues in a meaningful way while you can, because once the primaries are over it's quite likely we'll get be stuck with content-free debates as lackluster as we had in 2000 and 2004.