Mark Halperin, political correspondent for Time magazine, has another report card on the January 30 GOP candidates debate in Simi Valley, CA.
As a testament to his suddenly strong position in the battle for the nomination, he showed off all of his worst traits — and still won! Alternately cranky, elderly, caustic, equivocating, inarticulate, passionless. But he flexed his ability to intimidate Romney as needed, usually with an arch one-liner that was 3/5 mean-spirited and 2/5 light gag. Made little effort to defend his own tax record or negative Florida attacks, and failed to drive a positive message. Still, was treated by the questioners and his rivals as the clear frontrunner and the inevitable focus of the room. With Giuliani out of the race and on his side, and Romney struggling in perennial second place, McCain calmly expressed his principles, agenda, and stock statements with unhurried confidence. As always, the frontrunner's grade is based in part on maintaining the pecking order. This debate was a non-event, so McCain wins.
As in the past few debates, continued to figuratively fade from the stage, although he remained, as ever, absolutely true to his ideas and his ideals. Expressed himself with lucid passion, and no doubt made his supporters frantic with disappointment and some new viewers belatedly intrigued.
Ever-unflagging, he showed he plans to fight with fervent determination until there is a nominee — himself or McCain, whom he seemed to consider the only other candidate on the stage. Equally heated when defending himself against attacks (including the standard flip-flopping accusations) and when going after McCain. But in his final pre-Super Tuesday chance to confront his chief rival face-to-face, he was bogged down by frustration, distraction, and drift. He knows what he wants to say and what he has to say, but he was unable to make a strong case against McCain in a personable, consistent, persuasive way,
His transitional arc from chipper, sassy longshot to surprise leading contender to political folktale is nearly complete. As he himself repeatedly observed from the stage, he's still technically in the game, although neither he nor the audience seemed convinced. Wasted some of his scarce allotted minutes complaining about the lack of equal time (a la Tom Tancredo) His shining, magnetic personality and gubernatorial can-do attitude that carried him to victory in the small sandbox of Iowa have been diluted and desiccated in the vast Super Tuesday desert.