The PJ Tatler

What to Look for In Tonight's Debate

It’s Debateageddon v. 25 or thereabouts. Even though we’re well into the primary season by now, this debate’s position as the first in nearly a month and possibly the last at all makes it vital for all involved. My quick read on what to expect.

Rick Santorum is in an odd position, the front-runner in the polls who so far still has just three actual delegates in hand. Santorum’s four-year-old speech to a Catholic gathering has been used to paint him as a cross between Sarah Palin and the church lady and take him off message. That has mostly worked, as he has had to answer for his religious beliefs rather than talk about what he wants to talk about to win the nomination. He has shown over the past debates that he can hold his own as long as the glare is mostly on other candidates. What happens when Satan is put on the stage next to Rick Santorum, and he’s a frontrunner-level target?

Mitt Romney is the “inevitable” candidate who made one huge strategic blunder early on that has weakened his campaign ever since: He kept the base of the party at arm’s length, and ran a general election campaign in the midst of the Republican primary. That strategic decision eroded much of the conservative trust he won in his 2008 losing cause. He could have built out from that support and by now could be walking away with the nomination, but instead he still doesn’t have the trust of most of the party’s base. It’s probably too late to win it back now, and that certainly can’t be done in one debate. But he can present himself as the candidate less likely to make big, costly mistakes and who will keep a cool head in all circumstances.

If there’s one word that sums up Newt Gingrich’s campaign at this point, it’s “relevant.” As in, is he still relevant at this point? Is his a real candidacy or a revenge candidacy to prevent Romney from winning, to get back at him for the way Romney has hammered Gingrich with negative ads? It’s a telling sign of the true viability of his campaign, that Gingrich has nearly disappeared in the gap between debates. Would he similarly disappear as the general election candidate against Obama, when there might be only one or two debates? Santorum has not disappeared while Gingrich has. Gingrich can regain some of his relevance in tonight’s debate, by going after the one man that everyone on the stage agrees should be defeated: Barack Obama. And, if the opportunity arises, by going after the media.

Ron Paul as the GOP nominee would hand the election to Obama in one way: By being to the left of Obama on foreign policy. The Jewish vote that may be wobbly about Obama because of his handling of Israel and Iran would have no reason to consider Paul. Paul’s criticism of Obama for taking out Osama bin Laden would make Obama look like the sound choice even among more moderate voters who hold national security high on their issues list. Paul will rip off a few zings tonight but he isn’t running for the nomination, he is running for a primetime convention speech at this point, and to build a movement for the future.

Here at PJ, Stephen Green will drunkblog the debate and I’ll come along with a post-game wrap-up.