The Night-Day Double Header Debates
Saturday January 7, 2012
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The six remaining candidates for the Republican nomination for President will debate twice within 12 hours. Tonight they will debate on ABC beginning at nine, Eastern time; tomorrow morning (assuming no one has dropped out from embarrassment overnight) they will meet again in an NBC debate which will serve as the regular Sunday Meet the Press program.
The conventional wisdom is that Newt Gingrich's collapse in the polls matches the rise in negative ads run against him. I suggest that, with no debates in over three weeks (since December 15), voters forgot why they ever liked him in the first place.
As I am typing this on the morning of the first of the debates the latest tracking poll has lit up the Twitter-verse. This from Suffolk University/University of New Hampshire:
Romney - 39 percent
Romney is also leading in the latest poll from South Carolina where he couldn't win because South Carolinians would never vote for a Mormon. The CNN/Time poll has Romney at 37 percent, Santorum at 19, Gingrich at 18, Paul at 12, and Perry at 5 percent, although while this poll was in the field Perry was in Austin reassessing, so he might be doing better.
If Romney wins the first three contests, this process will be essentially done on the 31st when the votes from the Florida primary are counted.
So, let's take 'em from the top.
Paul - 17
Gingrich - 10
Santorum - 9
Huntsman - 9
Perry - 1
The conventional wisdom of the Pundit-ocracy is that this will be the "Weekend from Hell" for Romney because his opponents, with few arrows left in their collective quivers, will aim them all at him.
I have a contrarian view. This is when professionals step into the batters box and dare the other team's pitcher to throw his best stuff, then launch one into the left-center field bleachers.
The bar for Romney isn't a home run. All he has to do is to be about as good as he has been in the first 329 debates, during which he has established (word used with full understanding of its double entendre nature) he can be trusted to sit behind that desk in the Oval Office.
If I were advising Romney I would tell him not to even mention his rivals (thus not giving them rebuttal time), but to focus totally on President Obama who does not have a lectern tonight.
Romney doesn't have to be perfect, although offering to bet $10,000 would put a dent in that perfection thing, but he does have to keep his cool as he is attacked by his opponents for Romney-care. He has shown an great sensitivity to being challenged on this basic attack point, but maybe his handlers have helped him grow a thicker skin.
The air is leaking out of the Ron Paul balloon. The good news for Romney is that Paul has apparently decided to turn his heavy guns on Rick Santorum and it is likely he will continue that in the debate tonight.
Santorum having to use up precious seconds defending against Paul instead of attacking Romney is a huge benefit to Romney. As has been written before, Paul's floor and ceiling of support is in the 16-20 percentage point range and there isn't anything he can do during the debate tonight to change that.
Paul will continue his well-honed Libertarian mantra which will continue to play well with about a fifth of the electorate in New Hampshire.
Again, I believe the conventional wisdom to be wrong about Gingrich. The press corps is a-Twitter (again with the double entendre) waiting for him to do a repeat performance of his concession speech in Des Moines last week which was the Full Monty Angry Newt.
Like him or not, Gingrich is not new to this game and understands these debates are his strongest weapon and he would be, paradoxically, unilaterally disarming if he used his time attacking Romney's campaign tactics rather than doing the kinds of things that saved him during the long drought of his campaign until his sudden rise in December.
That is not to say Gingrich won't take swipes at Romney, but I will be surprised if he doesn't focus on the kinds of grand solutions that have served him so well throughout this debate series.
It appears to me that a note of desperation has crept into Rick Santorum's appearances. Prior to his sudden rise in the polls over the past 10 days, Santorum seemed content to be the keeper of the social conservative flame in this process. But, since he lost-won-tied in Iowa he has decided to take himself seriously and has shown us the Rick Santorum who got hammered by 18 percentage points in his failed bid for reelection to the U.S Senate.
Santorum has claimed it was he, and not Gingrich, who should get the credit for the 1994 election which resulted in the GOP taking control of the House. He has also suggested it is he, and not Gingrich, who should get credit for major legislative accomplishments like welfare reform.
Santorum has to get through Gingrich and Paul to get to Romney, so it is likely he will take on Gingrich (who has called Santorum a "junior partner" in the House) and save his frontal attack on Romney for the 10 days between New Hampshire and South Carolina.
It is not particularly insightful to say that these two debates are Jon Huntsman's last chance. He has been trailing the field since he entered the race and books will be written to explain why he has not found a base vote upon which he could have, should have, been able to build.
Nevertheless, he has run an honorable, if irrelevant, campaign will continue to make reasonable, intelligent, and adult-sounding suggestions tonight.
New Hampshire voters will, as many Republicans across the nation have done through the previous debates, nod and tell each other it's too bad he hasn't caught on, but he won't catch on tonight or tomorrow and will be the next contestant off the island by Wednesday morning.
Rick Perry left the campaign briefly and rejoined it the next morning but has not been out of Texas since.
We know that, to but it as gently as possible, debates have not been Perry's strong point and it is not likely he will be able to re-establish himself as a top-line candidate tonight or tomorrow morning.
But, he will try.
Look for his new handlers to have come up with what they hope is the Perry version of 9-9-9: Some easily repeated, easily understood and, yes, easily remembered catch phrase for a major change in policy - maybe tax policy.
Perry may not be playing for the nomination tonight. He might be playing to get his poll numbers up to where it is not disqualified from participating in the two South Carolina debates.
It may be a close call.
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