Monday, June 13, 2011

First Major Primary Debate Tonight in New Hampshire

CNN is hosting a primary debate in New Hampshire tonight; it will be broadcast on the network at 8:00pm Eastern. Seven candidates have accepted invitations to participate. They include all six of the candidates officially in the race (Cain, Gingrich, Paul, Pawlenty, Romney, and Santorum), plus Michele Bachmann. Unlike the May 5th debate hosted by Fox News, CNN did not require participants to create a presidential exploratory committee. No doubt CNN was eager to get Bachmann and Sarah Palin in on the action. However, Palin declined to attend, as did Jon Huntsman, who was also invited. Both are still considering whether they want to run for president. CNN raised the poll requirements slightly so as to exclude former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who appeared at the Fox News debate. For more information on how debate invitations work, see our earlier post.

This will be the first true debate of the primary season, and the first debate appearance for Bachmann, Gingrich, and Romney. With seven candidates, it will be interesting to see if CNN favors the more well-known candidates, or if they divide the number of questions evenly. At the May 5th debate--which had only five participants--Fox News gave each candidate the same number of questions. During the 2008 primary season, there were often as many as ten Republicans at each debate, and only the top-tier candidates got a decent amount of attention. The pressure will be on CNN to give each candidate an equal chance: There are seven candidates, which is more than they would like, but the field is wide open.

The stakes are highest for Newt Gingrich, as his entire campaign strategy rests on his ability to out-debate opponents, and his campaign staff resigned en masse only a few days ago. At this point, the very survival of his candidacy is questionable.

The debate will also be very important for Bachmann and Herman Cain, who will vie for the hearts and minds of the Tea Party crowd. Cain got a lot of attention at the previous debate, but it was easy to stand out with so few other candidates. After Cain's recent gaffes, the CNN moderators will be eager to probe his knowledge and find a gap. Bachmann will try to steal some of Cain's enthusiasm, but she's known for making gaffes of her own. Whichever candidate can appear to be the more serious will emerge in a stronger position.

Another point of interest will be the battle between Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney. They may not be willing to attack each other openly so soon, but each will try to play the role of the "senior statesman" (or as it's frequently called today, "the adult in the room"). They are the two candidates with the most perceived electability. If Romney stumbles, some of his establishment support may find itself drifting toward the Pawlenty camp.

Rick Santorum is frequently overlooked. He will need to make every effort to get attention. If he doesn't get it at a debate, he won't get it elsewhere. Ron Paul, meanwhile, will likely use his debate platform however he sees fit and have some fun.