Tonight’s debate is the last one featuring all the candidates before the January 3 Iowa caucus, unless the Newsmax debate happens and Trump’s absence leads to commitments from all who declined. It is obvious that there will be fireworks between Gingrich, Romney, and Paul, but the real show might be put on by Santorum, Bachmann, and Perry. It is probable that only one of them can survive Iowa by coming in third or fourth, making this debate a do-or-die moment for all three.
Newt Gingrich is doubling-down on remaining positive, though he has taken a few retaliatory shots at Romney lately. He says it is “critical” that the nominee not be damaged by the primary process, and he’ll employ that line if the heat gets too strong. By staying positive, Gingrich has a higher likelihood of being the second choice of his competitors’ supporters. He must hope that the lower-tier candidates beat each other up so that none can take his support as his conservative credentials are questioned.
Gingrich should expect the same attacks as during the last debate, except in higher volume. There are videos of him calling himself a “Wilsonian” and praising FDR as the “greatest political leader of the 20th century” and “greatest president of the 20th century” going around the Internet. There are few things worse for a Republican candidate to do in a primary than to exalt a Democratic president above Ronald Reagan. It’ll be shocking if his rivals don’t make full use of it.
Mitt Romney faces a dilemma tonight. On the one hand, he has to have Gingrich come down a few pegs. The latest InsiderAdvantage poll has Gingrich only five points behind him in New Hampshire. A victory in Iowa could give him enough momentum to carry the state, or at least make it close enough that it stops Romney from getting a bounce.
He’s been going after Gingrich for his infamous “right-wing social engineering” comment and for being an “extremely unreliable” conservative. His campaign has written a memo about “Newt Nancy,” referring to his ad with Pelosi about global warming. He is challenging Gingrich to return the money he received from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to which Gingrich responded by challenging him to return the money he made from laying off workers and filing companies for bankruptcy. Ironically, Romney is accusing Gingrich of being a major flip-flopper, but he probably won’t set himself up for a monster counterpunch by using that line in the debate.
It’s hard to tell if the attacks are working. One poll shows Romney closing the gap nationally with Gingrich to six points. Another has Gingrich with his widest lead yet, 40 to 23. InsiderAdvantage has Romney falling to fourth in Iowa, one point behind Perry and only two ahead of Bachmann. Pollster Matt Towery says his campaign in the state is “imploding” because of the negativity, calling it “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen a campaign do.”
If Romney’s camp shares Towery’s observations, he’ll switch tactics tonight. He’ll focus almost exclusively on electability, and most of his attacks will be related to Gingrich’s “erratic outspokenness” which could help Obama in a general election. He can let the others attack Gingrich. He can also point to the polls. There is not a single battleground state where Gingrich performs better than Romney against Obama. Rasmussen’s last poll found that Gingrich has lost 5 points in a potential matchup with Obama in just one week. The RealClearPolitics average has Romney doing about 7 points better in a general election.
Romney needs to be prepared to be confronted with a video of him that is making the rounds on the Internet. It is from 2002, and shows him saying that his “views are progressive.” Gingrich may also bring up Romney’s admission that he was wrong to oppose the original Contract with America. Gingrich may use that position to claim that he ran to the left of Ted Kennedy during his race for the Senate.
Ron Paul is now a major threat to those on stage, and tonight’s debate should reflect that. There is a distinct possibility of him winning Iowa. The latest PPP poll has him virtually tied with Gingrich for first. In New Hampshire, he is only about three points behind Gingrich for second place in New Hampshire. Suddenly, Ron Paul has become Romney’s best friend, which explains why Romney chose him when asked which candidate he has learned from. Gingrich is bidding for Paul’s supporters by emphasizing their commonalities and by adopting his positions on auditing the Federal Reserve and reestablishing the gold standard.
Expect some major tussling between Perry, Bachmann, and Santorum tonight. Of course, all three will target Gingrich, as they gain from his loss. A recent survey determined that Gingrich, unlike Romney, is “highly vulnerable to attack” and his support is soft. As previously stated, it is imperative for each of these three that they take the third or fourth spot in Iowa. Those who don’t will probably drop out. And it’s very unclear who is winning among the three. The latest InsiderAdvantage poll has Perry in third (13%), Bachmann in fifth (10%) and Santorum in sixth (7%). PPP has Bachmann in fourth (11%), Perry in fifth (9%) and Santorum in sixth (3%).
It looks like Santorum’s number one target will be Bachmann. He is repeatedly emphasizing that he won fights in Congress, whereas she has lost. He points out that she has only served four years in the House and argues that he’s more electable: “Michele represents one of the most Republican districts in the state of Minnesota. She’s had a tough time winning those districts every time. It’s not like she’s ever had any record of success of attracting the kind of voters we need if we’re going to win this,” he recently said.
Jon Huntsman will probably focus most of his fire on Romney and possibly Paul, as those three are competing for independents and moderates in New Hampshire. He can count on the others to bring down Gingrich. He’s taken a more negative turn lately, claiming that Romney and Gingrich are no better than Obama.
The media tonight is focusing on what will happen between Gingrich and Romney, but both will survive Iowa. The real fight will be between Perry, Bachmann, and Santorum.