Friday, December 9, 2011
Primary Debate Tomorrow on ABC
It has been a few weeks since the last primary debate, and the field has changed considerably. Herman Cain dropped out of the race, and Gingrich has rocketed to the top of every poll outside of New Hampshire. The pressure is on Romney to do something to stop Gingrich. As for the minor candidates, they will be hoping to capitalize on Gingrich's fall in Iowa, should it occur.
For the past few months, there has been a strange dynamic in the race, because there was no clear frontrunner. Normally one candidate is in the lead, with everyone else attacking him. But because Rick Perry fell in September, and because no one quite believed Cain's lead in the polls was real, the candidates weren't focused on attacking one person. That's changed. Gingrich is ahead in the polls by a big margin. That means it's time for everyone else to try and bring him down.
Romney's campaign began attacking Gingrich this week, and the debate moderator will probably ask Romney if he's willing to do it in person. Recall that during the summer, Tim Pawlenty had criticized Romney in some interviews but was unwilling to repeat the insults during a debate. Pawlenty appeared weak. Now Romney will face the same challenge. He must prepare himself to engage Gingrich during the debate without appearing too hostile or mean-spirited.
Unfortunately for Romney, he's in a poor position to do the attacking. It's important to undermine Gingrich's conservative credentials, but Romney's own conservative credentials are in question. It's much easier for Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, or even Ron Paul to do the job. If they hope to win Iowa, they will cooperate. But the only person Romney can rely on is himself, and he will be prompted to do some of the dirty work personally.
The other difficulty is that Romney's main argument is about electability. It's not possible for any candidate to make that argument convincingly, because saying "I'm electable" will always sound too self-serving to be believed. Instead, a candidate must present himself as electable and demonstrate why the other candidate is not electable. Again, doing so without appearing hostile or mean-spirited is not an easy task, especially if the audience likes Gingrich.
As for Gingrich, his best bet is to answer any substatantive attacks made against him while gently chastening his attacker for being negative. Gingrich publicly said that his strategy for dealing with Romney's criticism is to "kill him with kindness." That's not a bad idea if you're the frontrunner. With Gingrich's lead in the polls, he can afford to be magnanimous, and he will be rewarded for it.