Phase Three of the Republican primary, debates are becoming much more frequent. It's been less than a week since the last one, but another primary debate will take place tomorrow at 8:00pm Eastern on CNN. There will be many more debates to follow, but this one will be critical.
Prior to the debate on September 7th, Rick Perry was the leader in all national primary polls and widely considered the frontrunner. But Perry was badly damaged by a poor debate performance. In particular, Perry made a major gaffe about Social Security. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney did well at the debate. In response, Perry lost his lead over Romney on the Intrade markets.
Any one bad debate performance or major gaffe may be written off as an isolated incident--especially if the gaffe is made by an otherwise popular candidate. But if the mistake is repeated, it can inflict enduring damage. Tomorrow's debate is important because it presents Perry the opportunity to put in another bad performance. If Perry shoots himself in the foot again, and if Romney does well again, the balance of power in the campaign will shift in Romney's favor. If that happens, Perry will not be out of the race, but he will have a lot of catching up to do.
The debate moderators will likely ask Perry about his Social Security gaffe. He has two options. Perry can stick to his reputation as a "tough talk" candidate by doubling down, perhaps elaborating on why Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and a failure. Or he can "walk back" his comments by saying that he was never in favor of abolishing Social Security, only fixing it. Regardless of the option Perry chooses, he will be damaged further. But Perry's goal must be to prevent further damage, so he should take the second option. It will be an important test for Perry.
For Romney, the path is much easier. Since he has not made any serious gaffes of his own, he only needs to avoid making any gaffes. As with the previous debate, his best strategy is to avoid going on the offensive against Perry. He should not accuse Perry of being unelectable, even though Romney's whole strategy is to make Perry look unelectable. The electability argument is one that a voter must put together himself. It's just too self-serving to make the argument on one's own behalf.
Tomorrow's debate will also be important for Michele Bachmann. She became irrelevant in the last debate, which presented the Republican primary as a two-man race between Perry and Romney. Bachmann should play the only card she has to play: Attack Perry as a "RINO." Bachmann's only chance of winning Iowa is to show that she's the only true conservative in the race, and that Perry is a phony, unworthy of the Tea Party mantle.
The remaining five candidates at the debate--which features the same roster as the one on September 7th--face the same challenge as last time. They must find a way to make themselves relevant and get some attention directed their way. But they also need to distinguish themselves from the leading contenders; otherwise, there is no reason to vote for them. Last time, Newt Gingrich got plenty of applause, but he didn't offer a compelling explanation for why he should be the nominee instead of Romney or Perry. With each debate, the five "minor" candidates increasingly run the risk of being characterized as just that.