A reader, Lynn, asks for my reaction to John McCain’s performance in the CNN/YouTube debate, particularly his rejoinder to Mitt Romney on waterboarding and torture. You can read Lynn’s entire post to the website here. In her comments, Lynn makes reference to dial focus group measurements taken during the debate, which scored McCain’s response on torture as a low point in the evening. Joe Klein, blogging at Swampland, provides some useful background on this focus group. It appears from Klein’s reporting that, although Romney’s performance left me rather drained, it evidently invigorated a number of other voters.
As for McCain, he is obviously buoyed by evidence that our troop surge in Iraq is reducing the level of violence there, which seems to further stoke his moral indignation on the issue of torture. John Dickerson at Slate notes that McCain has exhibited similar moments of strong moral leadership in previous debates, as well, but they do not appear to help him much in the polls.
My sense is that McCain’s negative dial group measurements are driven by Republican voter suspicion that he is not fully committed to the prevailing conservative political narrative on the Global War on Terror. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and most of the other Republican candidates all subscribe to the notion that we are currently engaged in a profound struggle between the forces of democracy and those of radical Islam, in which the Iraq War is just one front. Disavowal of any tactics for fighting this battle, including enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, is viewed by some as a form of unilateral disarmament. My guess is that the dialing voters were registering their displeasure with McCain on this count.
So, those flashes of moral leadership from McCain may help him with some independent voters in New Hampshire, but they will likely only further his estrangement from the Republican base.
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