Huckabee Grills GOP Candidates in Republican Presidential Forum

The 2008 contender moderated a debate where candidates actually got a chance to speak at length. Lloyd Grove reports.

Mitt Romney, his lovely hair looking blacker and his chiseled face more orange than usual, was aggressively ingratiating, and perhaps a little desperate, during Saturday night’s Fox News “Republican Presidential Forum.” The unlikely new frontrunner, Newt Gingrich, conspicuously resolved to keep his appointment with destiny, announced that he was sporting a replica of George Washington’s Valley Forge command flag on his lapel.

Rick Perry pleaded for a second chance. Ron Paul had trouble hearing the questions.

Michelle Bachmann named the Dred Scott decision of 1857 as the Supreme Court’s all-time worst—her tacit admission, at long last, that the Founding Fathers maybe didn’t do much to end slavery after all. And moralizing former senator Rick Santorum argued that holy matrimony is too important to be left to the states: only a newly conservative federal government can be trusted to set nationalized standards for proper coupling, and the next president of the United States should be a marriage counselor in chief.

Speaking of which, Herman Cain, lamentably, had a previous commitment—the suspension of his campaign over sexual-misconduct allegations. And no-show Jon Huntsman, who could have used the exposure with such an influential Fox News audience, might be kicking himself right now for declining to participate.

Because it turns out that the forum—featuring former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee as moderator and three Republican attorneys general cross-examining the candidates one by one—was the most substantive discussion yet among the GOP contenders. Also the most revealing.

Nobody imploded, but Texas Governor Perry might have given even conservative voters pause when he suggested ending federal support for school lunch programs, Pell grants, and the GI Bill. “Absolutely!” he crowed. In another bit of awkwardness, he pulled out of his suit jacket a glossy copy of the Constitution—which looked more like a chamber of commerce brochure than a founding document—and flourished it upside down.

Ron Paul stuck to his libertarian principles and admirably refused to pander—doubling down on his criticisms of the Patriot Act and federal efforts to prevent domestic terrorism as violations of the Bill of Rights. Bachmann stuck to her declaration that, as president, she would deport all 11 million “illegal aliens,” but couldn’t quite articulate how that will be accomplished. She claimed that their presence in this country costs U.S. taxpayers, variously, $82 billion and $22 billion a year. Her performance prompted one expert Bachmann observer, New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza, to tweet: “Whenever Bach speaks I start to write tweets fact-checking her. Then I'm overwhelmed by sense of the meaninglessness of life & delete them.”

The candidates each received an equal 11 minutes on the hot seat—a swivel chair on a shiny-red platform about 15 feet from their interrogators. Never mind that they were all Republicans; it was the opposite of cozy. Huckabee announced at the outset that the rules forbade the candidates from speaking ill of their rivals or dodging the questions.

Gingrich, who went first, managed to keep his hair-trigger temper and razor tongue in check and strike an avuncular, teddy-bear pose under the sometimes sharp questioning of Virginia’s Ken Cuccinelli, Florida’s Pam Bondi, and Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt. He remained calm, even when Cuccinelli kept asking him about his various apostasies of the past (sitting on that damnable couch in the global-warming commercial with Nancy Pelosi, voicing support for health-insurance mandates, taking money from Freddie Mac), and he kept his tone level and resisted the urge to whine. He smiled winsomely—and a lot.

Romney, who went last, looked a tad rattled and defensive when pressed by Cuccinelli on his Obama-like health-care initiative back when he was governor of Massachusetts. Romney, too, tried to appear unflappable (his recent bellyaching about the “overly aggressive” grilling of Fox News anchor Bret Baier fresh in the public mind), but his breathless patter was punctuated by giggles.

Everyone, apparently following directions from on high, was dressed in a somber shade of black—who knew that Roger Ailes was a wardrobe Nazi? Their garb lent them either the gravitas the Republican bench has previously lacked, or the doleful aspect of ushers at a funeral. Perhaps the likable and telegenic Huckabee, who has put on weight since he won the Iowa caucuses four years ago, was also kicking himself—for deciding not to jump into this particular race: he just might have been the class of the field.

He coulda been a contender.