The Republican presidential candidates will have back-to-back debates this weekend on Saturday at 9 PM and Sunday at 9 AM, amounting to what Politico is calling “Mitt Romney’s weekend from hell.” Santorum will have the spotlight as he never has before, but expect Newt Gingrich to steal the show by doing everything he can to take Mitt Romney apart.
The big moment everyone is waiting for is when a moderator asks about how Gingrich flatly called Romney a “liar” over the anti-Gingrich ad campaign in Iowa by a pro-Romney Super PAC. Gingrich followed that with: “Somebody who will lie to you to get to be president will lie to you when they are president.” He’s repeatedly called him “timid” and a “Massachusetts moderate” that Obama will “laugh at” in a general election.
“Obama’s going to say, ‘I developed Obamacare based on Romneycare. I even brought your staff into the White House in order to develop it,’” Gingrich said in making the case against Romney’s electability. He accuses him of raising taxes on the blind, funding abortions, and allowing gay marriages. Gingrich mocks him for only getting 25% of the vote in Iowa and says Romney is “out of the mainstream of the Republican Party.” If you doubt that Gingrich will get this personal on stage, consider the fact that he refuses to congratulate Romney on his victory in Iowa.
Gingrich’s camp discussed forming an alliance with Santorum to double-team Romney in the debates. This did not materialize and Gingrich is softly going after Santorum. He questions his ability to oversee a national campaign and referred to him as a “junior partner.” Gingrich’s overall message is that he’s the man that can bring change to the government, doubling-down on the theme of Obama’s 2008 campaign. Gingrich is focusing on Romney and apparently hoping that Santorum won’t survive the scrutiny he gets as the new member of the top tier.
Mitt Romney generally coasted through the earlier debates as his rivals battled to claim the right-of-Romney vote. This won’t be the case this weekend, as every single candidate will be gunning for him. His theme will be tailored for a general election and he will accuse Gingrich of doing President Obama’s work for him. His main goal will be to appear presidential by not getting flustered as he has in past debates and interviews.
Rick Santorum finds himself in a nice spot. He has risen to second place nationally, 8 points behind Romney. The polls show him leading a tight race for third in New Hampshire, which would solidify his position as the alternative to Romney. In South Carolina, he is now in second place, only three points behind Romney. In these debates, he can count on Gingrich to tear into Romney, while he can stay above the fray and benefit from any backlash against Gingrich.
Santorum’s lines of attack against Romney haven’t changed much. He’s still hammering away at his flip-flops and his health care plan, which indirectly injures Gingrich because he supported the individual health care mandate in the past. One noticeable change is that Santorum is sounding more like a policy wonk, giving more detailed answers with historical references. This is probably a way of appealing to Gingrich’s supporters.
Ron Paul has made Rick Santorum his number one target. His latest ad calls him a “serial hypocrite” like Gingrich and directly accuses him of corruption. It mentions his relationship with lobbyists and highlights a quote where he said he is “no longer a deficit hawk.” Paul recently insulted Gingrich as a “chickenhawk” who avoided serving in Vietnam. These are the sort of things Paul will mention tonight and tomorrow morning.
Rick Perry is likewise focusing on Santorum. His campaign put out an ad about his support for earmarks and Perry calls him a “serial pork barrel earmarker.” Perry is the one that most emphasizes Santorum’s landslide loss in 2006, saying: “This guy has proven that he can’t win races when it matters against a liberal Democrat.” Perry is in the single digits in South Carolina and will need to make a splash to justify the continuance of his campaign after finishing fifth in Iowa.
Jon Huntsman’s main target will be Romney as they both are competing for the moderate voters in New Hampshire. He has put all of his eggs in one basket in the state, so Huntsman will be more aggressive than ever. Huntsman says Romney will be a “status quo president” and is trying to penalize him for his wealth. He is challenging him to release his tax returns. He may not admit it, but it sure seems like Huntsman is trying to win independents by capitalizing on the anti-Wall Street sentiment of the “Occupy” movement.
There are two major struggles that will play out this weekend. The first is Romney against everyone, with Gingrich leading the way. The second is Santorum against Gingrich, Paul, and Perry. Expect the helmets and gloves to be dropped.