Obviously, the Republicans running for president watched the Democratic slugfest the other night in South Carolina and decided that getting down in the mud did not help Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama...and that they should take the high road in the Florida debate tonight.
The result? Nothing but sunshine in the Sunshine State. Which makes for a rather dull debate. But just because they were cordial to each other on the debate stage, doesn't mean that they weren't sniping and dishing behind the scenes.
I got no fewer than five emails from Mitt Romney's campaign during the debate, slamming John McCain and pointing out mistakes and contradictions in his statements. This kind of spin is common, but during debates, the campaigns work overtime to deliver real-time commentary. Romney's people were especially critical of McCain's economic positions and expertise, pointing out that McCain did, in fact, say that he needs more education on the economy, and doesn't know enough about economics, even though when debate moderator Tim Russert brought up those quotes, McCain denied ever saying that.
Romney knows that the weakening economy plays to his strength. He's rising in the national polls, as the Republican race dwindles into a two-man battle, between him and McCain. Watch for him to start overusing the word "turnaround," as in "I turned around the Olympics," "I turned around businesses as a CEO," "I turned around Massachusetts" and "I can turn around the American economy." His business experience resonates with conservative Republicans concerned about the economy, especially in contrast with the more foreign policy-minded McCain. So Romney will point out that contrast every chance he gets.
McCain pulled a classy move in tonight's showdown when he went out of his way to praise Rudy Giuliani, after Russert read from the New York Times endorsement of McCain, which savages Giuliani as "narrow...arrogant...vindictive." Unlike Romney, McCain rarely panders, and typically says what he believes, regardless of the political consequences. Why praise one of his main rivals in Tuesday's Florida primary, a man who desperately needs a win to salvage his candidacy? Because it was the noble thing to do...and besides, McCain knows as well as the rest of us that Rudy is sinking like a stone, probably won't win in Florida, and is no longer a credible threat. No, this is turning very much into a Romney-McCain battle, and you can be sure it won't stay this friendly between next Tuesday...and Super Tuesday...one week later.