Debates Will Separate the Contenders from the Also-Rans
Five GOP presidential debates in the next six weeks will tell the tale of the race.
August 30, 2011 - 12:00 am
The Republican presidential campaign is about to go into overdrive. Five debates are to be held in just six weeks starting on September 7. The race has essentially restarted since the entry of Texas Governor Rick Perry upended the dynamics of the contest. Some candidacies will fall apart. Others will unexpectedly propel forward. And some will do both, in either order. Now, the real fun starts.
It’s the Rick Perry Show right now, but the spotlight can burn. He leads Romney by 27-14 among Republican and Republican-leaning independents nationally. His immediate task is to meet extremely high expectations. General Wesley Clark and former Senator Fred Thompson were overhyped and their candidacies quickly faded. Perry’s advantage is that he’s the three-term governor of Texas, giving him much more experience than they had in politics. As I mentioned on Hannity, he also has a base of support among evangelicals. It’s hard to think of anything that can top his “Day of Prayer.” If Perry does meet expectations, the anti-Romney vote will begin coalescing around him and he will be a strong frontrunner.
Mitt Romney will hold back from striking Perry in the beginning because he knows the other candidates will do the job for him. The fates of their candidacies depend upon undermining Perry. Romney wants the right-of-Romney vote to be as divided as possible, and he hopes that the candidates will be too busy sniping at each other to throw any hard punches his way. He will also focus on electability, playing on concerns that Perry is too much of a regional candidate. Romney’s style in the past debates will probably go unchanged for now.
Michele Bachmann has a dilemma. She needs to bring down Perry without seeming panicked and unpresidential and without alienating his supporters. She must hope that Sarah Palin stays out of the race and if she does, that she doesn’t endorse Perry. Bachmann will emphasize her credentials on illegal immigration, positioning herself to benefit when Perry is criticized on the issue. She will refrain from going on a strong offensive against Perry for the moment and will wait to see if the media scrutiny and high expectations bring him down in the polls.
Unlike most pundits, I don’t count Newt Gingrich out just yet. He shines in the debates and has the most substantive policy positions of any of the candidates. He can generate excitement with big, detailed ideas and present himself as the “change” candidate of 2012. The media often overlooks the huge applause that follows whenever one of the candidates speaks out against Sharia law. There is a highly-motivated part of the Republican electorate looking for its anti-Islamist warrior. Gingrich could very well become their guy. The biggest problem he faces is that people don’t want to volunteer for, or donate to, a lost cause. And that’s what his candidacy looks like. He has to do something to prove that his campaign is viable, and must hope that other candidates drop out soon so he has more time to speak at the debates.
Ron Paul is a significant player this time around, but he has hit the ceiling of his support. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson has been given absolutely no attention, so Paul isn’t competing with anyone for the libertarian vote. He could have a strong showing in New Hampshire, and his campaign has made issues like the gold standard, isolationism, and the Federal Reserve part of the discussion. However, he has no pathway to win the nomination, but his campaign has always been more about ideas than viability.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is the one most likely to target Perry. He had a strong debate performance last time around, and performed surprisingly well in the Ames Straw Poll. His problem is that other candidates have taken away the rationale for his candidacy. He’s lost evangelical and social conservative support to Bachmann and Perry. He lost in a landslide in 2006, so he can’t argue that he’s electable. His only hope is to compete with Gingrich for the anti-Islamist vote and bring attention to weaknesses in Bachmann’s and Perry’s records. It’s hard to see a way forward for him.
Herman Cain came in fifth place in the Ames Straw Poll after hoping to be in the top three. He shot himself in the foot when he embraced a Muslim Brotherhood front to try to make up for his statement in support of communities banning the construction of mosques. He’s a good speaker, but there’s no longer a case for his candidacy.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman is dead in the water. He had a horrible debut debate performance. If you drank every time he said he was proud of his service, you wouldn’t remember the night. He is hoping to rally the moderate vote behind him like McCain did in 2008. The flaw in that strategy is that the Republican Party has moved sharply to the right since then, and McCain’s centrism was tolerated because of the party’s political weakness at that time. Huntsman’s only chance is to appeal in a major way to independent voters in New Hampshire, but it’s hard to see how he appeals to anyone if he performs in the upcoming debates like he did in the last one.
The World Series for political junkies begins September 7.Get your food and drinks ready.