Tonight’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library that is being hosted by NBC and Politico comes at a pivotal time in the race. First and foremost, tonight’s debate will feature Texas Governor Rick Perry, the newly minted frontrunner and the latest candidate to join the Republican nomination fight.
Even though this is the fourth debate of 2011, it also marks the fourth different candidate lineup. However, the field is now settled and the only potential candidate still looming on the horizon is Sarah Palin, who seems more content with flirting with a presidential run than actually preparing for one.
Tonight’s debate is also the first major time all the candidates will share the stage since the Iowa Straw Poll debate. With the Straw Poll in the rearview mirror, candidates who are not competing in Iowa like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman can no longer afford to let those battling it out in Iowa command the stage.
In many ways the Republican nomination contest to this point has been like the NFL’s preseason. We’ve learned a lot about all the players, but tonight’s debate marks the kickoff of the regular season, and thus the candidates are now playing to win.
With that being the case, here is what each candidate needs to do in tonight’s debate.
The newly minted national frontrunner Perry needs a stellar debate performance to solidify his status as the leader for the Republican nomination. Perry has the most to lose tonight. He rocketed to the top of the polls, which is a great place to be in terms of fundraising and media coverage, but he’s actually done little to earn his frontrunner status except not be named Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney.
In late June, TheIowaRepublican.com/Voter Consumer Research poll showed that the number one thing on voters’ minds was defeating President Obama. It’s clear that the Republican electorate has doubt as to whether or not Bachmann or Romney can actually beat Obama next November. Perry’s rapid rise in the polls is based on voters’ opinion that they think he can win in November. A poor debate performance will take a lot of wind out of Perry’s sails, while a stellar performance could make life difficult for the rest of the field.
Until Rick Perry joined the Republican race for president, Mitt Romney was the undisputed frontrunner for the nomination. In the first two debates in which he participated, Romney was content to just sit back and let others, mainly Bachmann and former candidate Tim Pawlenty, duke it out. That strategy worked when he was the frontrunner, but now he’s looking up at Rick Perry in the polls, and he needs to go on the offensive.
Romney’s strategy was perfect when he was the frontrunner, but now he has to worry about getting passed by. Four years ago, Rudy Giuliani was the frontrunner at this point in the race. Like Romney, Giuliani was betting big on states like New Hampshire and Florida. Amazingly, Giuliani, who had an 11-point lead at this point four years ago over Fred Thompson, wasn’t even a factor in the nomination fight.
Romney has to make sure that he doesn’t get passed by like Giuliani did. That’s difficult to do when you are basically taking a pass on the first contest, the Iowa caucuses. To avoid fading into the background, Romney needs an aggressive debate performance, and more specifically, he needs to take the shine off of Perry.
Bachmann’s campaign has experienced a bit of turbulence since winning the Iowa Straw Poll. Unfavorable stories in the press, top staff resigning, and poor national poll numbers have dogged Bachmann for the past three weeks. A solid debate performance will steady the ship, and a weak performance or a major gaffe could cause further damage.
In 2008, Ron Paul rocked the establishment by participating in debates. Now, he’s willing to go toe-to-toe with his opponents. Paul’s recent attack on Perry indicates that his campaign is not going to satisfied with just crashing the party. They now want to win. What is yet to be seen is if Paul can land a major blow on one of his opponents in a debate setting.
With Paul polling in double digits not too far behind Romney and Bachmann, he can no longer be ignored.
Quietly, Santorum is gaining traction in Iowa with the state’s ample number of socially conservative activists. Despite having solid performances in the first two debates, Santorum finally made a splash in the last debate when he took on Ron Paul on foreign policy issues. Santorum will surely look for any and all opportunities to challenge the frontrunners from the right. While he might be stuck in low single digits in the polls, Santorum is the one candidate Perry, Romney, and Bachmann want to avoid tangling with on the issues.
Cain might not have the most detailed positions on issues, but he makes up for it with his infectious personality. If the debate moderators don’t try to show the candidates’ depth of knowledge on topics, then Cain may be able to once again steal the show with his straight talking style and common sense solutions.
Despite his poor poll numbers, Gingrich has the ability to steal the show any time he takes the stage in a debate or candidate forum. Gingrich dazzled the audience at Jim DeMint’s and Steve King’s Palmetto Freedom Forum on Monday, and he could steal the show again tonight. At some point, Gingrich needs to convince Republican voters that he can build a winning campaign, but for now, winning debates will suffice.
Huntsman may be running for president, but he needs to use the next three debates to show that he’s relevant and deserving of consideration. If the nomination process began in large states like California, New York, or Michigan, Huntsman would probably be a contender. However, since states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are where the road to the nomination begins, Huntsman is struggling find any traction.
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