Sad Sanctuary

“This whole debate saddens me a bit,” John McCain declared about 20 minutes into the CNN/YouTube forum on Wednesday, after Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney engaged in a dizzying tiff over just whose turf it was that provided sanctuary to illegal immigrants.

But even as the issue threatened to descend into demagoguery, there was much more reason to be a bit gloomy here, the Republicans’ time to endure two hours of egalitarian questioning from a spectrum of YouTube users. Like the Democrats turn in July, the event was billed as more than just a gimmick. Because anyone could submit a question, this was a prime example using the Internet to its fullest democratic potential.

But the Democrats’ YouTube debate was novel, sometimes entertaining and even provocative. The Republicans turn, by contrast, was still provocative, but also quite a bit nattering and even just plain nasty.

Perhaps it was because of the time of the campaign: A race still wide open with just a few more weeks to the starting gate. Or perhaps it was because of who was asking the questions. Anchor-moderator Anderson Cooper, apparently to appease concerns about the first debate’s presence of a talking snowman who asked about global warming, signaled that there would be no talking animals or animated presidents in this event.

Instead, the questions focused on lots and lots of Republican red meat issues, often from a cast of real characters who looked just the part to ask them. Jay Fox, a lifetime member of the NRA and dressed in fatigues, cocked his rifle and asked whether the candidates about their position on gun control. A man from Arlington, Texas, inexplicably on a headset, asked Ron Paul whether he believed that conspiracy theory that the government was secretly working on a “Nafta superhighway” One man, in black hat and sunglasses, and darkly lit as if he were on a suicide watch, asked whether candidates would pledge to veto any legislation that granted amnesty to illegal immigrants.

They did elicit interesting questions on what programs the candidates would cut and which among them own guns (Fred Thompson was oddly reticent to reveal much). But there were 32 minutes on illegal immigration — way too much — that seemed to crowd out other issues like health care and education. More perplexing is why CNN producers, facing pre-debate gripes that they were picking the questions (from among the 5,000 submitted) and not those in the online sphere, chose one question from Grover Norquist. Doesn’t he always get their attention for his no tax pledge?

Some gay rights groups had all but campaigned to have CNN pick questions some of their members submitted. They did run one from retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr, who just came out of the closet and challenged the candidates on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He even gave an impassioned speech from the audience, challenging them to allow gays to serve openly in the military. As it turns out, he also sits on an advisory committee on Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

But by and large candidates stuck to their own script, trying to gain tactical advantage with veiled suggestions and direct attacks. Right off the bat Mitt Romney fired a volley at Rudy Giuliani, charging that as mayor he provided a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants. The Giuliani charged that Romney provided a “sanctuary mansion” by employing illegals at his home. Romney called his comment “offensive.” Giuliani called him “holier than thou.” They looked ready to spit at each other before Cooper called a halt.

“Mitt usually criticizes people when he usually has the far worse record,” Giuliani said.

Romney-the-aggressor then went after Mike Huckabee, with the Massachusetts governor apparently undeterred by the fact that celebrity endorser Chuck Norris was sitting in the audience. He challenged Huckabee on a proposal he made as governor of Arkansas to give college tuition breaks to children of illegal immigrants.

Huckabee responded, “In all due respect, we’re a better country than to punish children for that their parents did. We’re a better country than that.”

Ronald Reagan’s name was invoked several times, as it has been at all GOP forums this year, but still missing was much of Reagan’s sense of optimism — or that inspired by the religious base. Pressed on what Jesus would do when faced with the death penalty, Huckabee declared, “Jesus was too smart to run for elective office.”

But even Huckabee — the sunniest candidate in the race — tried a turn at sharp jabs, albeit one aimed at favorite GOP target Hillary Clinton.  In response to a question of funding the space program, he said, “Hillary could be on the first rocket to Mars.” Perfect delivery, but isn’t the line, “To the moon, Alice?”

Other candidates reveled in the joust. Tom Tancredo, the little-known Colorado longshot staking his candidacy on shutting down immigration, declared that the field was trying to “out-Tancredo Tancredo.” Then he showed his campaign’s own YouTube video that touting his ability to take on … Geraldo Rivera.

More biting was the video offered by Thompson, who chose to forgo his folksy wit for a biting spot that featured vintage footage of Romney talking about abortion rights and Huckabee talking about raising taxes. Thompson wasn’t even in the spot. It was scathing enough that Cooper delayed a commercial break to ask Thompson, “What’s up with that?”

John McCain is emerging as the “been through it all before” GOP counterpart to Joe Biden. He sparred over the need for the troop surge with anti-war Paul, but gave a spirited argument against waterboarding as torture. His nemesis was, of course, Romney, who said he opposed torture but would not go into specifics about waterboarding, McCain said, “Then you would have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva conventions.”

Or, as McCain also said, “Life is not ’24’ and Jack Bauer.”

Like the show, shut down because of the writers strike, the GOP campaign is a race against time without the advantage of a plot.

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