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JIM LEHRER: Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant are still here. Tom, so what was the most important thing that happened in the Republican debate last night?
TOM OLIPHANT: I thought you saw two — in one case, a very different candidacy for this week, and that’s John McCain’s. There’s a different commercial up this week, and I thought there was a much more forceful John McCain in that debate. And it connects to a strategy where he is saying to the people of New Hampshire, in fact he’s saying it in this commercial, ‘I’m ready to be president, I’m the guy’ — background, training, et cetera, and I thought it was much more apparent in the vigor of his debating last night than it has been at any other time.
In the case of Governor Bush, and to make Steve Forbes mad at me for looking at these two candidates, I thought I saw somebody who was not giving up, but playing defense. He made his responses, but I do not sense the kind of vigor in his debating or in his campaign this week that can change the equation in New Hampshire.
JIM LEHRER: See it the same way?
PAUL GIGOT: It always pains me to agree with Tom. But, no, I think that’s right. You almost have two different campaigns going on, speaking past one another. It’s not an engagement over specific issues. It’s McCain running a character campaign, as Tom says, ‘I’m ready to be president, I have the experience, I have the biography.’ And he’s reinforcing that with a lot of his answers. He even turned abortion into a character issue. I’ve seen enough killing, he said, I don’t need a lecture from you.
Governor Bush is trying to run a substance campaign, he’s running an agenda campaign, to try to use issues like taxes to get economic concerns, like education to peel off some women and expand the gender gap. And I agree with Tom. I don’t think that Governor Bush did enough to change the dynamics of the race. I thought John McCain did more on the substantive point last night to help himself than Governor Bush did to help himself.
JIM LEHRER: What about the abortion issue, Paul, is that hurting McCain, particularly this thing that happened yesterday?
PAUL GIGOT: I don’t think it’s going to hurt him in New Hampshire, because I don’t think that is as large an issue in New Hampshire. It’s certainly not as large an issue among his voters in New Hampshire. I think it has the potential down the road — if he does win New Hampshire — to hurt him in South Carolina and Virginia and Michigan and some of these other states — to peel off some of his votes. But I don’t think it’s going to hurt him –
JIM LEHRER: Hurt him with whom, with what group?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, with conservative voters. In fact, John McCain, the McCain camp realizes this, because they’ve been running an ad in South Carolina that stresses his pro-life record. They understand that the New Hampshire electorate is a different kind of electorate. I mean, it’s Northeastern, it’s not the Bible Belt, it’s not as culturally conservative, it’s more Episcopalian than Baptist. And there are different cultural dynamics on the abortion issue in the South, and I think that’s where he could get hurt.
TOM OLIPHANT: You know, it is fascinating to watch John McCain wrestle with this issue. There’s nothing more fascinating in this business than watching somebody who’s trying to, I think, come to grips with something. I don’t think McCain sees this as the moral question, for example, that many pro-life people do.
I happened to be in California when he first started getting in trouble on this question last summer. And it’s like you see his index finger go toward the flame, and then he feels it and he pulls back. And I believe what he’s trying to say is ‘Let’s cool the fight.’ Let’s find the common ground on foster care, adoption and whatever, and get — you know, he talks sometimes about the business of the abortion fight on both sides, and that people are more invested in the fight than they are in dealing with the issue.
And I think as time goes on, more of that McCain is going to show, because in places like the South, it is also true there is no party registration. There are many people now who weren’t born in some of those states who have moved there because of the economy. If he is going to have a candidacy that succeeds, it’s going to have to rest on the shoulders of largely independent-minded voters, and that is why I think he will have to face this issue once and for all and say what he really feels.
JIM LEHRER: But isn’t it really Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer who keep the abortion issue — f it was up to George Bush and John McCain it would never come up.
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, that’s true, although the news media — if you sit in the McCain bus — you know, there are a lot of reporters who are baiting him on abortion.
JIM LEHRER: Because they know — to use Tom’s — where’s that finger going to go this time?
PAUL GIGOT: On that, McCain made a mistake this week. He wants to, as you say, damp this issue down and then he says something that is just going to rile it up again, when he says we should change the platform language. Governor Bush has a much smarter answer on this, which is I’m not going to touch the platform. He understands that voters will listen to him, not what’s in that platform.
TOM OLIPHANT: But those exceptions do cause people to see red.
JIM LEHRER: OK. Now, the excerpts from the Democratic debate.