Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Final Pre-Iowa Debate Tomorrow on Fox News

Fox News will host a Republican presidential primary debate Thursday at 9:00pm Eastern. This is the last primary debate scheduled prior to the Iowa Caucus. Although the minor candidates no longer have sufficient time to change their fates, the debate could have a big impact on the two-man race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

As Gingrich demonstrated during the debate on December 10th, he is much more skilled at deflecting attacks than previous poll-frontrunners like Rick Perry and Herman Cain. Romney, who was the target of attacks through the summer (and even September/October, when he wasn't leading the polls), is the only other candidate who has shown equal skill in the debates.

Consequently, Gingrich is much less likely to be hurt in the debate than the season's earlier Anti-Romneys. On the other hand, even a skilled and disciplined debater can stumble, as did Romney with his memorable $10,000 bet gaffe earlier this month. If enough candidates throw enough attacks at Gingrich, it's possible that he could make a mistake. If he does, the media narrative will be that Gingrich is finally falling back to earth. This would go hand-in-hand with some more recent polling showing Gingrich's numbers declining slightly. That's what Romney will have to hope for tomorrow. But he must take care to avoid making any gaffes of his own.

The minor candidates have mostly concentrated on attacking Gingrich, as the poll numbers dictate they should. The exception is Perry, who remains almost as fixated on attacking Romney as he was back in September, when it still made sense. The debate is a good opportunity for Tea Party candidates to criticize Gingrich for not being conservative enough. Gingrich's success thus far has been based on voters assuming Gingrich has perfect conservative credentials. Perry was in a similar situation in September, before the debates made people more familiar with Perry's immigration policy and the HPV vaccine issue.

The wildcard is Gingrich's own strategy. Gingrich had promised to be "relentlessly positive," but he has shown a tendency toward going negative whenever Romney offends him. If and when Romney attacks Gingrich, it could trigger an extended exchange of insults. Or, if Gingrich fears being booed, he might return to his positive approach.