The Republican Debatapalooza Preview
In an unprecedented scheduling of political debates, tonight at 9:00PM EST is the ABC News & Yahoo News debate followed on Sunday morning by the NBC News & Facebook debate that will air on Meet the Press, there is great potential for some serious fireworks.
I’ll be tweeting about both but will not be posting anything until after the second one is complete so here are my thoughts on what to watch for in both debates. While there may be some tactical shifts overnight and the moderators of each debate may have some impact on the dynamics, here’s what I expect to see overall with few changes between tonight and tomorrow morning.
Romney has a commanding lead in New Hampshire polling and has emerged as the front-runner in South Carolina, so look for him to be confident and continue his attacks on Obama more than the other GOP candidates. At the same time he will have to maintain a calm and cool demeanor as many of the other participants will try to attack him on all fronts. Look for Mitt to deflect most of the attacks with a little humor and a shift to attacking President Obama, since he gains nothing in duking it out.
Gingrich is in trouble and will have to decide which of two possible paths is most effective if he’s serious about maintaining his candidacy. He can attack Romney and try to regain some momentum but if he goes overboard and comes off petty, petulant and pissy it could easily backfire. Alternatively he could focus his aggression on Santorum to set up a possible rebound in South Carolina, where Santorum is gaining ground rapidly (in fact is leading Newt in some polls) by taking away votes that Newt desperately needs. There’s no middle ground here, we either see a great debate from Newt or a catastrophe.
Paul has little to gain by attacking Romney or Gingrich, as his best chance at the nomination is to create a one-on-one race first, so I look for him to primarily continue his attacks on Santorum, with a few shots at Perry possible. I also expect him to continue his “stump speech” style that is more focused on the issues and avoid the maelstrom of attack-counterattack in which the other five candidates will be heavily involved. Paul probably has the least to gain by engaging in the inevitable punch-counterpunch game.
Santorum may well be under more fire than anybody as he has yet to be as thoroughly vetted as the others have been and an increase in momentum in New Hampshire heading to South Carolina, with its larger Christian conservative base, will be very problematic for Gingrich and Perry. If Newt opts to make Santorum his primary target and Paul continues his attacks, it could be a very long 14 hours or so for the former Pennsylvania Senator. Even if Gingrich goes after Romney, Santorum will most assuredly come under fire from Perry as he tries to position himself for South Carolina as well.
Perry can only have one mission if he is to regain credibility in the race and that’s to position himself as the anti-Santorum. Rick has to forget Romney, and to a lesser extent Gingrich, now and focus on setting himself up for a big rebound in South Carolina by attacking Santorum’s newly found status toward the top of the field. Rick Perry is the most logical alternative candidate for the large South Carolina Christian conservative base to turn to on January 21 but he needs to build momentum immediately or he’s done.
Huntsman has to go after Romney, period. He has staked his candidacy on a stellar performance in New Hampshire, and while a strong second place finish well ahead of Gingrich, Paul, Perry and Santorum may not be the end of the world for him, a Romney runaway could make this Huntsman’s last hurrah. While the former Governor could play it safer and try to separate himself from the pack, I don’t believe he gets the necessary result he needs on Tuesday without taking votes from Romney.
Winners and Losers
These are the two hardest debates yet to handicap, as every candidate has immediacy to their needs. Romney knows he has an excellent chance to wrap-up the nomination after Florida; Gingrich is fighting for his life and that makes him very unpredictable; Paul needs to bounce back after a disappointing third place finish in Iowa; Santorum needs to affirm a rightful position as the last possible challenger to Romney; Perry has to reestablish himself as the candidate for the ultra-conservative right-wing of the party; and Huntsman is nothing more than a mediocre New Hampshire result away from going home.
When the dust settles I expect the winners to be Romney, Paul and Perry – not necessarily in New Hampshire but in the areas they can or must gain ground going forward. The losers will be Gingrich, Santorum and Huntsman – it was only a matter of time until Newt melted down and this is it, Santorum is not prepared for the spotlight but there’s no time to get ready, and Huntsman may come out okay in New Hampshire but longer-term he’s the next to drop out.
As always comments are welcome but if you disagree post your predictions so we’re all on the record, and then we can congratulate or castigate the most and least accurate prognosticators. It should be fun!