Newt Gingrich has huge leads nationally and in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. He’s creeping up on Romney in New Hampshire. There is only one more debate featuring all the candidates left before the January 3 caucus in Iowa, a mere three weeks away. This means that Saturday is do-or-die for every other candidate. They must all bring down Gingrich, and they won’t do it gently.
Look at Gingrich’s poll numbers to get an idea of the task ahead for his rivals. The RealClearPolitics poll averages show him ahead by about 12 points nationally, 12 points in Iowa, 21 points in South Carolina, and the latest poll out of Florida has him 13 points ahead of Romney. In New Hampshire, Romney is ahead by an average of 12 points, but the momentum from a Gingrich victory in Iowa could make it close.
That means his rivals need Gingrich to suffer a double-digit reduction in support over three weeks, especially those that are dependent upon performing well in Iowa. This will be hard, but not impossible. Polls show that about 55% of likely voters in Iowa and South Carolina, 48% in New Hampshire, and 53% in Florida are willing to change their minds. This suggests that tonight’s debate is going to be very rough on Gingrich.
Gingrich says he won’t be an “attack dog” against the others and this is a wise strategy. He got this far by minimizing his scuffles with rivals. The criticisms of Romney are already well-known and bringing them up won’t do any good. His main weakness — and Romney’s biggest strength — is electability. If Gingrich mounts a swift and persuasive defense against the charges brought against him tonight, primary voters will become more confident that he can take on Obama. It will also arm Republicans with rebuttals to the future attacks he will face if he is the nominee. His goal tonight is to appear like a winning general election candidate.
Mitt Romney is going on the offensive against Gingrich. He is describing him as a Washington “insider,” hoping to leverage anti-establishment sentiment in his favor. Romney will criticize him on immigration and his leadership as speaker of the House to depict him as an ineffective and unstable leader. Romney will make the case that Gingrich is a visionary, but is unprepared to implement that vision. He’ll also emphasize his strong family relationships in order to bring attention to Gingrich’s personal baggage.
Romney’s campaign is going after Gingrich personally, but it is questionable whether Romney will do that on stage and risk it backfiring on him. In a conference call this week, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu and former Missouri Senator James Talent harshly criticized Gingrich. They called him “irrational,” inconsistent, and self-absorbed. It will be hard for Romney to artfully do this himself tonight, so he may continue to rely on surrogates. If his campaign can make voters feel like Gingrich is pompous and condescending, Romney may be able to turn Gingrich’s intelligence into a liability.
Ron Paul has put out the most vicious attack ad on Gingrich. Its message is that Gingrich is basically corrupt and it hits him for supporting an individual health care mandate. In recent days, Paul has called him a “counterfeit conservative” and says he must “expose” him. This language indicates that this will be his most confrontational debate yet and for the first time, he’ll have most of his rivals backing him up
Michele Bachmann has been the harshest towards Gingrich in person. She has gone so far as to call him (and Romney) a “frugal socialist” and accuse him of being a “poster child for crony capitalism.” Her main criticism of him on policy has been his, in her words, “long history of supporting amnesty.” She also says he’s gotten rich off of “influence-peddling” and questions his credentials as a conservative.
At the same time, she’s been changing her style to be more like Gingrich. During her speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition on Wednesday, she adopted his promise to authorize the movement of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem immediately after the inauguration. She’s also become more of a policy wonk, throwing out details, facts, and statistics to show her depth of knowledge. She is willing to go toe-to-toe with Gingrich and she can fight. Ask Tim Pawlenty.
Rick Santorum is more hesitant to go after his long-time friend, but is the only candidate specifically calling out Gingrich on his personal history and for having an oversized ego. In interviews where he is asked about Gingrich’s baggage, Santorum has no problem saying, “Character is definitely an issue.” He says that leaders must exercise humility and that voters must consider how a candidate handles success.
On policy, he’s focused on Gingrich’s views on illegal immigration and criticizes him for putting social issues in “the back of the bus” as speaker. Santorum, unlike the others, may be able to wait to swing because he and Gingrich are the only two scheduled participants in the December 27 Newsmax debate with Donald Trump as the moderator. If the event is not canceled, that will be Santorum’s time to draw a sharp contrast.
Rick Perry says he’ll stay above the fray and that he’s counting on Romney and Gingrich to knock each other out. His main objective tonight is to compete with Gingrich over the evangelical vote. He is the candidate that has come the closest to bringing up Gingrich’s three marriages. “I didn’t make an oath just to my wife. I made an oath to God when I married my wife,” Perry recently said. He may make that point again tonight, even though it could come off as too low of a blow.
Jon Huntsman has chosen to campaign in New Hampshire instead of take part in tonight’s debate in Iowa. It is puzzling why a candidate longing for media attention would forfeit the exposure. However, he will have an opportunity to contrast himself with Gingrich on Monday when the two have a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate.
Gingrich will have the biggest target on his back tonight that any candidate has had so far.