Put out the dog. Get a sitter for the kids. Heat up the popcorn, and ice down the beer. Tonight’s CNN debate – the 20th of the campaign season – is slated to start in less than an hour. And it may be the biggest one so far. The debate comes less than a week before primaries in Arizona and Michigan, and polls in both states indicate close races between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. One week after that, it’s March 6 – Super Tuesday – when Newt Gingrich hopes to resurrect (once again!) his campaign with a strong performance in the southern tier of states holding primaries that day. Ron Paul, meanwhile, continues his strategy of picking up delegates, piecemeal, as he continues his slow (very, very slow) slog toward the convention.
So what do the candidates have to do? For Mitt and Rick, this is a high stakes event. Despite his surge in the polls since his three-state victories in early February, Santorum has yet to prove that he can win in a high turnout state. His best chance to do so may be Michigan, where he is running neck-and-neck with Mitt, and where his brand of economic populism may play well. He is undoubtedly going to be pressed on some of his more strident comments that have been resurrected in recent days (Is that you….Satan?) I don’t expect him to back away from his socially conservative views, particularly since several social issues, including Obama’s effort to find a compromise with religious organizations on funding for contraception, are sure to be raised tonight but he may seek to repackage them in a softer, kinder manner.
Mitt, meanwhile, released a more detailed tax plan today, the first step in a strategy designed to return the campaign toward the economic issues where he feels more comfortable, and which he sees as his strength. (It’s also an effort to trump the President’s own corporate tax plan, which he released earlier today.) Romney is slated to give a major economic speech later this week, and I expect him to preview that in tonight’s debate. Because immigration is such a big issue in Arizona, I also think Mitt will reiterate his hard line on illegal immigration, which may set up a reprise of the Mitt-hiring-illegals snafu we saw raised in an earlier debate. I expect him to try to throw Rick’s Senate record back against him, particularly key votes on spending bills, in an effort to present him as another Washingtonian who couldn’t rein in spending. Look for Mitt to try to do to Rick what he did to Newt in Florida – bear down with a steady barrage of criticisms citing Rick’s Senate record.
Keep in mind that Newt Gingrich, having already written off Arizona and Michigan, is gearing tonight’s performance to Super Tuesday. That means making the case to Tea party conservatives and evangelicals that he, and not Santorum, best represents their views. He needs to regain his policy mojo as the man with comprehensive, yet simple, solutions to the nation’s problems. In recent days he been pinning his comeback on energy policy, and I expect him to stress that quite a bit during the debate. Which Newt will we see tonight? The media-baiting, elite-hating, policy-stating, stage-dominating Newt who clearly won most of the early debates, or the I’m-not-bold, I’m-just-old Newt who fizzled in the Florida debate? This may be his last chance to use the debates to reignite his campaign. Indeed, it may be the last time we see him in a debate, period, pending the Super Tuesday results.
Finally, Ron Paul, who has seen a bit of the luster of his candidacy wear off after disappointing caucus performances, is hoping a strong performance will help build a bit of momentum heading into Super Tuesday.
CNN’s John King, who inadvertently ignited Newt’s campaign in the debate prior to South Carolina by asking about Gingrich’s ex-wife, will be moderating tonight’s event. We can only hope that similar Newtonian moment takes place. Even without that, this promises to be a no-holds-barred event. The one question I do have is how many people are still tuning into these debates. It’s been almost a month since the last one, so I suspect the viewing audience will be large, but I can’t be certain.
No matter. Sit back and enjoy. I’ll be back on live blogging in a bit. As always, I invited you to join in view the comments sections.
Last May Newt Gingrich’s announcement that he was running for president set off a wave of media criticism which collectively suggested his candidacy was D.O.A. The withering attacks by press and pundits reminded me of how the members of Delta House reacted when Kent “Flounder” Dorfman’s face went on the screen as a prospective pledge:
Now that I think of it, Newt looks a little like Dorfman. But I digress. At the time, (in true Otter fashion!), I wrote a blog post suggesting that the experts’ efforts to dismiss Gingrich’s candidacy were premature. In my words: “At this point, however, Republican presidential candidates are not trying to beat Obama – they are trying to beat other Republicans. To do so, they need to survive the invisible primary – the period from now until the start of the actual nomination process in early 2012. That requires staying within the top tier of candidates, as identified by the media, for the next nine months…There’s no reason to suggest Gingrich can’t stay within the top 2-4 candidates based on these criteria. Then comes the actual nominating process, beginning most likely with Iowa and New Hampshire. Can Gingrich do well in these contests? At this point, it is impossible to say. But his chances are no worse than any of the other major Republican candidates…. Looking ahead to Iowa, with Huckabee out, Gingrich is likely to be among the top three candidates at this point, and if he comes out of there no lower than third he has a good shot of being competitive in New Hampshire.”
I concluded: “In short, it is far too early to dismiss Gingrich’s candidacy based on the initial bumps on which the media has focused so heavily. Contrary to Charles Krauthammer’s prognosis, Gingrich remains very much a viable candidate. And, if things get tough, he can always call on Shakespeare’s Second Witch, whose incantations proved fatal to another national leader:
“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,–
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”
Powerful trouble? But for whom? Stay tuned.”
At the time, much like Otter’s defense of Dorfman, my post received the online version of a flurry of beer cans. Six months later, however, it looks like a post written by a smart Delta House rush chairman (“damned glad to meet you”). But if I proved prescient last May in warning against dismissing Gingrich’s candidacy, I would be lying if I said I knew he would be leading the pack come mid-December, and that it would be Newt – and not Mitt – who has the greater chance of closing this nomination race out early. (And don’t get me started on my Rick Perry prediction….)
With just a few hours to go before tonight’s latest, and most important, Republican debate (and I’ll be live blogging it at 9 eastern time), it’s worth analyzing why Newt is leading the pack to head Delta House…er…win the Republican nomination. In a word, it is the debates. In this excellent Newsweek article chronicling his comeback, Gingrich acknowledges that his rise was based largely on his debate performance, combined with a good deal of luck in the questions, and questioners, he received during the early debates. Gingrich recognized early on that the audience for these debates consisted not of party leaders and opinion makers, but of disaffected rank-and-file Republicans who were the vanguard of the Tea Party movement. And when he took on Chris Wallace for the tone of his question during an early debate – he chided Wallace for asking a “Mickey Mouse” question about Newt’s staff leaving him and received thunderous applause – Gingrich had the good sense to realize that attacking the media, and not fellow Republicans, was his route to the top.
But it took more than this. In most years, Newt would still have been shut out of the Delta House pledge process. But he benefitted this election cycle by the proliferation of Republican debates. Much like Obama, who in 2008 was forced to use caucuses to attract delegates and much needed media coverage because he couldn’t beat Clinton in the big primary states, Gingrich made a virtue of necessity by using the debates to force the media to provide coverage of him that he couldn’t afford to buy on his own. But this strategy required multiple debates, and the cooperation of the other candidates. And they did cooperate. Romney once again proved unable to demonstrate to Republicans that he possesses any sense of authenticity. The early not-Romney candidates faltered under the unyielding glare of the media spotlight. Meanwhile, Newt remained just under the radar, blasting the media, adhering to Reagan’s 11th amendment, and drawing on his years of experience and policy wonkiness to climb to the top of the polls.
Newt’s rise is a reminder why the nominating process is so unpredictable, and why pundits were wrong to write him off. Simply put, unlike the general election race, political scientists can’t really use previous nomination races as a basis for predicting what will happen this time around. There are simply too many changes – in candidates, but also in venues, and rules and other institutional factors, to think that today’s nominating contest will follow the patterns of previous ones. Whenever a book or article comes out presuming to be the definitive work explaining how the nominating process works – the party decides! – events invariably prove that the conventional wisdom is outdated. To be sure, there are some basic rules of thumb that seem to hold for most nominations most of the time, but these aren’t really precise enough to generate accurate predictions very early in the game. Remember – I said not to dismiss Newt. I didn’t say he’d win.
And that leads to tonight’s critical debate. The media, finally, recognizes what you have heard from me for several weeks now: that Newt’s candidacy is for real, and that his support is not going to follow the same arc we saw with Bachmann, Cain and Perry. This is not to say that the Republican Party establishment and opinion makers are happy with Newt’s ascendancy – they continue to predict his imminent demise and they are actively working to make that happen. They may yet succeed. But if it Newt’s candidacy does implode, I predict it will have little to do with issues related to Newt’s personal “baggage”. As I noted in an earlier post, even social conservatives are focused on the economy in this election cycle, and not on cultural issues. And Newt’s skeletons have long since been exhumed from the closest. If Bill Clinton’s bimbo eruptions couldn’t derail his presidential bid (or even his presidency – remember, he was most popular during the impeachment and Senate trial), I doubt Gingrich’s personal travails will be his downfall. Nor do I think the ethics charges, or the Fannie Mae lobbying, or the money he earned after leaving politics, is going to matter very much to rank-and-file Republicans seeking to beat Obama.
No, if Gingrich is to fall, the other Republican candidates – especially Romney – must work to topple him. That means stepping up tonight to begin pressuring Gingrich on his publicly espoused policy views which are both all over the place and in many instances very moderate. For example, wasn’t he for global warming before he was against it (and what about that Pelosi ad)? What are his views on immigration? Newt has a rich and quite public policy record, and Republicans should have a field day pointing out inconsistencies tonight. They need to target Newt and keep him on the defensive for the full hour. It will help that there are only six candidates in the mix tonight.
These attacks, however, likely won’t be enough on their own to bring Newt down. For that to occur, Newt has to make a slip or two in reaction to the pressure. He has to stumble, either by twisting himself into a policy conundrum or lashing out at his accusers (Stop lying about my record!) or both. And this is where it gets interesting: has Newt really matured? Is this the new Newt – wiser, more humble, and more thoughtful – that has been advertised? Have the years in the political wilderness really mellowed him? Is Callista a calming presence? Has Catholicism changed his moral compass?
Tonight, I expect the sharpest exchange of views in a Republican debate so far, and the most focused attack on Newt and his record. And what does Newt think of all this? I have to believe he’s thinking this:
Tonight. National television on ABC at 9 o’clock: the Delta House pledges convene once more. Don’t miss it. And remember, I’m not making any predictions – but Republicans need the dues.
With the latest Gallup polling showing Obama’s support at its lowest among whites, Hispanics and blacks, last night’s Republican debate took on added significance, particularly since it was the first to include purported front-runner Rick Perry. Because the media has anointed itself as kingmaker, it is useful to see how the leading pundits scored last night’s debate, and compare that to how the candidates’ actually did (in my humble opinion). Significant differences often indicate where the winnowing is likely to take place. Keep in mind that these debates typically tell us more about media preferences than about how likely voters actually feel about the candidates. But this is important, since media preferences shape coverage, particularly in determining candidate viability, and that is a major factor in winnowing the candidate pool during this period.
Of course, the major news focus was on the Romney-Perry clash. Because scoring a debate is a highly subjective process, pundits tended to pick the winner of this clash to be the one who was closest to the media outlets’ general ideological leaning; conservatives (see here and here ) thought Perry came out ahead, while liberal/moderates outlets (see here) gave the nod to Mitt. This says less about how these two actually did than it does about the preferences of these particular media outlets. In truth, neither did much to damage their candidacy, which in the end is probably a slight victory for Perry, since he is now the de facto frontrunner, and this is his first time on the national stage.
To be sure there will be the usual tsk-tsk’ing among the chattering class about Perry’s description of Social Security as a “ponzi” scheme. When he first made this claim, analysts chided him for this supposed gaffe. To his credit, Perry ignored them and came right back with the same claim last night. When Republican-leaning voters hear Perry’s claim, they know immediately what he is saying – that the program is underfunded. Let others debate the finer points of what a ponzi scheme really is – as a short-hand reference to the sorry state of Social Security funding, the phrase works.
The biggest loser in last night’s debate? If the media is to be believed, it was Michele Bachmann. Never mind that her performance was almost identical, in terms of talking points, presentation, poise, and any other criteria you can think of, to her two earlier and highly praised debate performances in New Hampshire and Iowa. With Perry’s entrance into the race, the media has decided she must be winnowed, and they are well on their way to doing that. She has been hammered in the last week for her “stall” in the polls and the shakeup in her campaign team and despite another strong performance last night, the media reacted with a dismissive wave.
But Bachmann’s reviews were positively sterling compared to poor Newt Gingrich’s. If debates were scored on the basis of a candidate’s substantive knowledge about important issues and proposed solutions, Newt Gingrich would be leading the polls. It is easy to forget, with all the anti-Newt media caricatures floating around, just how much leadership experience on the national stage this guy has, how knowledgeable he is, and how he generally runs circles around his media interlocutors. Alas, if you read today’s news accounts, you wouldn’t know Gingrich even participated in last night’s debate. The media has written him off, which says more about them than it does about his qualifications for the presidency.
Jon Huntsman, meanwhile, has been relegated to “best friend” status. The pundits all included a paragraph that praised his likeability, his informed opinions and his moderate stances on the issues, and then proceeded to reiterate that he has no chance of winning. In the end, Jon won’t get the girl, but he gets to pal around with the leading man.
Nor did much happen last night to brighten the electoral fortunes of Rick Santorum, Herman Cain or Ron Paul. All acquitted themselves well – Paul in particular was his usual lucid self in justifying his libertarian stance on a number of issues – but there are simply too many candidates on the dais for the media to cover and they have already decided, by dint of scant news coverage, that these three must go.
There you have it. These same Republicans – at least most of them – will square off again next week in Tampa, Florida, another key battleground state. By then, of course, the President will have announced his latest jobs plan, which will undoubtedly provide fresh fodder for the debaters. But what will the President say – and will it make any difference? I’ll try to address that topic in my next post.