MSW Handicaps Tonight's Debate

Tonight’s Iowa debate on Fox will serve two purposes, which, in the event, are at cross-purposes with each other, one for those participating and one for the Obama campaign. The Republican candidates need to fire up their base in advance of the Ames straw poll this weekend. But, in an age when everything is videotaped, the candidates risk firing up the base by staking out extreme positions – it is the way you stand out on a stage with seven other people – and their statements could easily become campaign fodder for Democratic ads next year.

This is the dynamic that haunts the GOP nominating process. The base is fired up, angry, fiercely committed to a set of propositions that are not shared by mainstream voters, averse to compromise at a time when most voters are yearning for compromise. To court the base risks alienating the center. In 2008, then-candidate Obama courted the liberal base of the party with his biography more than his policies. Only a few times did he say something that would give centrist voters pause. None of the GOP candidates has a biography with a similar punch, with the possible exception of Michele Bachmann who, by reason of being a woman personifies change as Obama did as the first plausible black candidate, and, by reason of being a mother and super-foster mother, embodies the commitment to family values in a way male candidates can’t.

Debates are most important to those candidates who have failed to get traction. Senator Rick Santorum could use a breakthrough moment tonight. But, unfortunately, the issue on which he has most recently tried to make hay – his criticism of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s comments about New York’s passage of gay marriage being “fine with me” because of his commitment to states’ right – will lack the emotional punch Santorum would need because Perry will not be on the stage. Attacking the views of someone who is absent lacks the drama of attacking someone standing right next to you.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich always does well in a debate forum. Whatever you think of his politics, Gingrich is smart and substantive, he is not going to get a question he can’t answer, he frames his answers in terms of a narrative about American history and destiny that resonates with GOP voters. His campaign has been mired in the kind of insider squabbling that keeps Washington abuzz, but I would not count him out. John McCain had a dreadful 2007, as his campaign suffered the kinds of setbacks that currently dog Gingrich. Nonetheless, if only for fundraising purposes, Gingrich could use a stellar performance tonight.

On the other hand, Herman Cain does not profit from a debate format. His pat answers, his sloganeering, his folksy analogies, these work better in a stump speech but they wear thing over ninety minutes alongside people who can talk about policy in some detail and fill out their answers with personal political biographical information, e.g., “I voted against the debt ceiling increase.” Two more debates, and Cain’s campaign will die a slow death.

No one needs to do better than Tim Pawlenty but he also does not seem ideally suited to a multi-candidate debate format. His earnestness works best in small gatherings, house parties, and the like. Debates need fire. Pawlenty is simply too calm, too measures, too polite to flourish on a stage with the likes of Bachmann, Gingrich and Ron Paul.

Ron Paul, of course, marches to the beat of his own drummer. The man and his policies are somewhat idiosyncratic compared to the others, but he makes up for clarity what he loses in suppleness, which is why he does tend to do well in debates. His problem is that his views are so cohesive, so rooted in a precise libertarian ideology, that unless the viewers share his presuppositions, some of his statements simply seem outlandish. Paul’s opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are rooted in a clear vision of America’s role in the world: He wants that role diminished at least in so far as military interventions are concerned. But, many rank and file Republicans like the idea of a forceful American foreign policy, a robust military and a big Pentagon budget. Still, I confess I love watching Paul in debate: He is so straightforward and confident in his views, he exudes a “let the chips fall where they may” sensibility that Americans like, even though that is not a particularly useful sensibility in a person given governmental responsibility. In truth, we want them to think about where the chips will fall.

Jon Huntsman is also somewhat idiosyncratic in comparison to his colleagues. He is the only GOP candidate who said he would have voted for the debt ceiling increase. Huntsman is cordial to a fault. He steadfastly declines to take cheap shots at President Obama – and how could he after the letters of fulsome praise for the president he wrote while serving as ambassador? I just don’t see how this stance helps him win a GOP primary in the current climate. 1968 would have been his year, after the debacle of the Goldwater candidacy pushed the GOP to the center. But, it is not 1968.

Michele Bachmann had a very strong performance in the CNN New Hampshire debate and look for her to have another strong showing tonight. It will be very curious to see if Pawlenty or Santorum go after her. Since the last debate, one part of her resume has come under scrutiny, her small business, a Christian counseling center that she and her husband run. The bigger controversy had to do with the center’s willingness to engage in “conversion therapy” for gays, but I don’t expect any of her debate partners to challenge her on that. They may focus on the fact that the center takes Medicaid funding. But, I suspect Bachmann will hold her own again tonight. One thing is for sure: She will be the best looking person on the stage, and those visuals matter. She exudes self-confidence. She knows how to deliver a soundbite without it sounding canned. She can turn her lack of legislative accomplishments into an indictment of what is wrong with Washington. My quick prediction: Next morning, most commentators will be saying she won, or at least did very well, tonight.

Finally, poor Mitt Romney can expect to be the target of barbs from all sides. The nominal front-runner and most well-financed of the candidates, he has been keeping a low profile lately, only wading into the debt ceiling debate at the last minute, raising money at off-the-record fundraisers, doing the things a traditional candidate does at this point in the race. His problem, like that facing Huntsman and Gingrich and Pawlenty, is that the traditional way of seeking the presidency may not work this time around. His flip-flops on abortion and on the government’s role in health care will not endear him to the true believers in Iowa. Look for him to be roughed up a bit tonight, which is a danger but also an opportunity: If he pushes back successfully and forcefully, he could have a good night.

So, that is my quick handicapping of tonight’s proceedings. Like many, the absence of Gov. Rick Perry makes me think the effects of the debate will be short-lived: They will have an impact on the straw poll to be sure, but Perry has already contrived to upstage the straw poll by announcing his candidacy in South Carolina on Saturday. Still, I am looking forward to watching the debates. The only thing that ever turns a debate into an event of historical significance is a mistake: Gerald Ford saying Poland was free in 1976, Jimmy Carter saying his teenage daughter was most concerned about nuclear proliferation, George H.W. Bush looking at his watch in 1992, John Kerry’s convoluted answer to a question about abortion in 2004. And, by definition, no one knows when a mistake will come and sink a candidacy.

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