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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / Campaign 2012

A Debate Season for the History Books

2011 adds a new bit of conventional campaign wisdom: Debates matter.

Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, and Rep. Michele Bachmann prepare for a debate in Sioux City, Iowa(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

December 16, 2011

Elections have consequences. The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day. It all comes down to turnout.

To this list of these election-year clichés, add this: Debates matter.

Just about every one of the Republican contenders for the nomination has seen their fortunes rise and fall (and fall some more) because of their performances in the 13 major nationally televised debates since early May.

 

“Frankly, they saved some candidates … and totally destroyed others,’’ said Warren Tompkins, a Republican consultant in South Carolina who advised Mitt Romney in 2008. “The debates have driven the process. They have been the process.’’

(VIDEO: Highs and Lows from the Republican Presidential Debates)

Thursday’s FOX News debate in Sioux City was the last one before the Iowa caucus on Jan. 3 that will commence the nominating season. On that note, here are five things we’ve learned from the great debate season of 2011:

Practice makes perfect. With few exceptions, Romney excelled at the format, at least in part because of his past experience. Thursday’s debate showed Romney at his best. He projected the aura of a confident front-runner by largely ignoring the other candidates on stage and seizing every opportunity to take on President Obama.

Asked about Newt Gingrich’s criticism of his tenure as a corporate raider, Romney pivoted to a criticism of Obama’s alleged hostility toward capitalism. He did it again when asked which industries will thrive in the future, hammering away at the principle that private markets, not big government under Obama, will pick the winners and losers. Newt Gingrich, another old hand at public speaking, also shined in the debates with his breadth of knowledge.

“At the end of every debate, the two adults on the stage were Gingrich and Romney,’’ Tompkins said. Because most of Romney’s appearances were so polished, his few missteps had an outsized impact—when he recalled telling his lawn service company, “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals,’’ and when he awkwardly offered Perry a $10,000 bet over his health care record.

The little guys (and gal) can make a difference: Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are unlikely to win the Republican nomination. But at times the most cutting criticisms of the front-running candidates came from these underdogs. Bachmann and Paul both delivered damning portraits Thursday of Gingrich’s receipt of about $1.6 million in taxpayer dollars from the oft-maligned mortgage backer Freddie Mac. When Rick Perry led the polls back in September, Bachmann and Santorum—whose religious conservative credentials are beyond reproach—ganged up on the Texas governor for supporting legislation that would have mandated vaccinating schoolgirls against a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer.

The 2012 election will be about big things. In campaigns of yesteryear, candidates spent more time stumping in the earliest voting states and tailoring their speeches to local issues. In Iowa, they lauded the properties of ethanol. In New Hampshire, they sounded off about the Northeast Dairy Compact.

This year, the administration’s now-dropped complaint against Boeing for opening a nonunion plant in South Carolina was an important issue, but hardly an overriding one. Up against a mounting national deficit, the appropriate role of the federal government, and American exceptionalism, ethanol subsidies fell off the map.

“The reason that the debates have become so important is that for ordinary Republican voters, this election is about the very future and direction of the nation,’’ said Republican strategist Todd Harris, who has advised presidential candidates from John McCain to Fred Thompson. “Because of the huge questions facing the country, we’re having a more-national conversation.’’

Republicans want a strong debater as their 2012 nominee. Weakness is unacceptable in a potential nominee who will face a sitting president and powerful communicator. The same concern did not apply, for example, to Democrats picking a nominee in 2004 to go up against the more rhetorically challenged President Bush. So Tim Pawlenty’s refusal to challenge Romney on his health care plan was a deal-breaker. So were Perry’s shaky performances after a late entry into the race.

Like Pawlenty, Gingrich once refused a moderator's cue to criticize Romney, but instead of shrinking from the question, he belittled the attempt to pit Republicans against each other. Voters seemed charmed by his esprit de corps, juxtaposed with heavy media-bashing.

“Republican voters recognize we need someone who can go toe-to-toe with Barack Obama in the general election,’’ said Mike Dennehy, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire who helped engineer McCain’s 2008 victory. “They want someone who has a solid handle on the issues, sounds consistent, and leads them to believe that they can be trusted.’’

Voters will tune in. Some of the Republican primary debates drew toughly twice as many viewers as similar formats four years ago. More than 7.5 million people watched Saturday's debate in Des Moines. “The fact that people cared was a testament,’’ Harris said.  “It suggests a level of engagement in politics in this country that’s more significant than in years past.’’

Without the debates, some of the underfinanced candidates would never have had a chance to break through. Bachmann and Herman Cain each enjoyed spurts of popularity after spunky performances on stage. And with the candidates spending far less time glad-handing in Iowa diners and New Hampshire backyards, the stakes of the debates only got higher.

“Candidates did things differently this time, with hardly any retail campaigning, so the only way for the voters to find the candidates was through the debates,’’ Dennehy said. “The debates influenced voters’ opinions more than we’ve ever seen and resulted in some wild swings.''

Sometimes to the chagrin of the candidates. Dennehy and others predict that campaigns will try to assert more control over the debates in 2016 by participating in fewer broadcasts and steering control away from media outlets and toward local party officials.

If they succeed, the 2011 debate season will definitely be one to remember.

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