Format Leaves GOP Debate A Dud

Fred Thompson was a little more growly, Rudy Giuliani a little more defensive, and Mike Huckabee a little more careful--and that's by design, said the new Republican front-runner in Iowa, who limited his biblical metaphors to just one.

But what really emerged during today's GOP debate in Des Moines were the conspicuous limits of the event's format: 90 minutes of scattershot questions, a demand for 15- and 30-second answers to important, complicated questions, and a stage crowded with nine candidates. (The lineup included the voluble Alan Keyes, who has no discernible campaign and whose presence was a needless and time-consuming distraction.)

What was the Des Moines Register, the debate's sponsor, thinking? Editor Carolyn Washburn, the unflappable lone questioner, may have been wondering the same when Thompson crankily refused to participate in a hand-raising exercise when the group was asked who believes climate change is a threat. Or when a combative Keyes broke in to gripe about not getting asked questions before launching into a soliloquy she was unable to stop. Or when Mitt Romney politely expressed incredulity when given 60 seconds to answer a question about how he would quickly improve the nation's education system to better compete internationally.

"These are important topics," he said.

Indeed they were, and Washburn, who bypassed the red-hot issue of immigration, gamely posed questions about taxes, education, climate change, debt as a national security issue, and how to keep foreign markets open while protecting American jobs (that was the 30-second answer round). She challenged Giuliani on reports that as mayor he tucked security expenses for his then mistress into budgets of obscure city departments and asked Huckabee to give examples of how his faith would influence decisions on healthcare and education.

But with a packed stage and time eaten up by marginal candidates, and even with Washburn's provocative questions, the debate, which could have been pivotal, was doomed. With the state's caucuses just three weeks away and the race for the GOP nomination completely up for grabs, it was a wasted opportunity. Tomorrow, the Register will have another shot, this time with the Democratic contenders.

By Liz Halloran