Editor's note: Seattle-based national political writer Ted Van Dyk is on a book tour and is occasionally reporting from the road.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, having lost a tight contest in Florida to Arizona Sen. John McCain, could not have arrived for last night's GOP debate, at the Reagan Library in southern California, under worse circumstances. Just before the debate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani endorsed McCain. Then, immediately after, it was made known that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would endorse McCain today. The Gubernator sat next to Nancy Reagan at the debate – the implication hanging that she, and the Gipper, too, if he were there would be with McCain.
After the debate, media tended to call it a draw or to focus on McCain's momentum and the possibility that he might wrap things up nationally next Tuesday. In the debate itself, however, Romney did exceptionally well in difficult circumstances.
CNN allowed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul into the debate, although neither has any chance whatever in the nominating race. That distracted from what could have been a far more interesting one-on-one matchup between McCain and Romney.
Romney struck the most telling blow of the evening by cornering McCain regarding false statements he has been making regarding Romney's position on Iraq. McCain kept shifting and trying to change the subject, but Romney had him nailed. McCain also repeated his habitual charge, when under pressure, that he was the victim of negative campaign tactics by opponents – no doubt the victim, in his case, of a vast left-wing conspiracy.
Romney also had the edge in the debate on economic/financial issues, where his own experience is far deeper than McCain's.
Media, however, have pretty much bought into McCain's "straight-talk" story line and the boost he has gained from big-media and GOP establishment endorsements in recent days. McCain also is benefiting from the fact that Super Tuesday's GOP contests will be winner-take-all – that is, the winner in each state will get all of that state's delegates, even if his winning margin is 0.05 percent. (For example, Florida's delegates in Tuesday night's primary there all went to McCain. Had they been awarded in proportion to the two candidates' votes, however, the delegate split would have been roughly equal.)
Democratic contests, by contrast, will award delegates proportionally. Unless Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's present momentum enables him to run the table next Tuesday, across all states, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's organizational strength in many states may enable her to collect enough delegates to carry the contest beyond Super Tuesday. That would give meaning to Democratic caucuses in Washington on Feb. 9, even if the GOP race probably will have been decided by then.
It is far too early to call next Tuesday's results. Unless Romney gets a break, between now and then, McCain likely will be a winner – if a narrow winner – and, thus, collector of all delegates in a majority of the big states at stake then. A strong Hillary debate showing tonight could make the Democratic outcome problematic, with neither candidate getting enough delegates next Tuesday to clinch the nomination. A weak Hillary showing could help push Obama over the top.