The most striking part of the first full-blown debate in the Republican primary was the total rejection of science.
In a surreal scene near the night's end, Gov. Rick Perry likened the people denying global warming science to Galileo. To observe that he has that history exactly backwards -- it was the Church that accused Galileo of heresy in 1633 for scientific theories which were on the right track -- is merely to observe that Perry's substantive errors come with their own stylistic snafus. Perhaps that is fitting. More consequential, however, was the answer that Perry failed to provide.
The original question asked him to name a single scientist that supported his views. None of his opponents seized on the gaffe, since apart from the exception-of-the-night, Gov. Huntsman, every other candidate was aiming for the same conservative turf on which Perry stood. And unlike Gov. Palin's famous inability to name her sources, the media is likely to put Perry's problems aside, in order to focus on the "fireworks" that finally broke out between top tier candidates.
It says a lot about the weakness of the GOP field, and the hunger of its would-be supporters, that Rick Perry could not only burst to the top of the race at such a late date, but also begin reshaping the field in his image. Meanwhile, the Romney Campaign seems to think Perry's extremist rhetoric on Social Security creates an opening for arguments rooted in rationality and electability. Still, this is a battle on Perry's turf, as he announced on Wednesday night. "Maybe it's time," he argued, "to have some provocative language in this country."
Now, it has become something of a trope to talk about how the GOP is suddenly more conservative than people might remember, when it's actually been pretty hardcore for a while. But still, it is striking to see just how tough its litmus tests have become this year, from denying global warming to decrying the kind of tax-to-benefit-cut ratios that President Reagan would have loved. In the last presidential cycle, after all, the Republican nominee wasn't just factual in his discussion of global warming, he'd even proposed bipartisan legislation to curb greenhouse gasses.
Back in September 2007, of course, John McCain was trailing Guiliani and Romney in early states. It's possible that the GOP base will get fired up and ultimately cool down before it's all over. But this time, I doubt it.