Durham bulls

It’s widely agreed that former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) lost the GOP presidential debate in Durham, N.H., Wednesday night — because he didn’t take part. He parried that wisdom fairly neatly on his TV appearance with Jay Leno by saying the debate itself was not “a very enlightening forum.”

It’s certainly true that the debates are stilted and that a sense of sameness emerges from them despite their evident differences of outcome. That is because campaigns insist on essentially identical trappings (podiums, lighting, colors, etc.) every time.

As noted, however, the outcomes differ markedly. And so it was with this week’s outing. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who has looked stiff and angry in previous encounters despite, or perhaps because of, his repeated use of the phrase “my friends” to engage the audience, put in a strong and effective performance this time. He was forceful and authoritative and easily slapped former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney into line during an exchange about Iraq.

Romney, seeking to put distance between himself and President Bush on the war, said the surge in U.S. troop numbers was “apparently working.”

McCain interjected: “Governor, the surge is working. The surge is working, sir.”

Romney: “That’s just what I said.”

McCain: “No, not ‘apparently.’ It’s working.”

The senator much more effectively distanced himself from the administration when he said, “Nothing we could gain from torture could possibly be worth the damage to the integrity of our country.”

So, a good night for McCain.

But the winner was Rudy Giuliani. The former New York City mayor has been criticized, and will continue to be criticized, for answering so many questions with reflections on his tenure commanding and cleaning up the great city.

The criticism misses the point. The core and nearly the entire content of Giuliani’s campaign is his record as a brilliant executive during a harrowing time of trial. The presidential election is the process of choosing an executive, and there is no doubting that America, at war, is going through a time of trial. Every time Giuliani harks back to his lead role in New York’s renaissance and to his 24/7 work ethic in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he makes the point that he is the man for this turbulent and dangerous season in the nation’s history.

His may not be the right message, but it also might be. It certainly is not obviously wrong, and Giuliani can’t be faulted for sticking to it. He did so on Wednesday and he can probably expect a bump in the polls as a result.