Sunday, January 15, 2012

Debate on Fox News Tomorrow

Fox News will host the next primary debate, which takes place tomorrow at 9:00pm Eastern. Tomorrow's debate will be one of two to be held prior to the South Carolina Primary. The second debate will be on Thursday, and the voting will take place in South Carolina on Saturday. It's an important week: By the end of it, we should have a better sense of whether a single opponent can coalesce the Anti-Romney vote, or if Mitt Romney will cruise to victory.

Obviously the two debates represent a final opportunity to derail Romney's candidacy before the South Carolina Primary. Romney will be facing numerous attacks from his opponents. Given the amount of attention focused on Bain over the last week, Romney will be given ample opportunity to defend his tenure at the private equity firm. And Romney's opponents--Newt Gingrich in particular--will be given ample opportunity to criticize what Romney did at Bain.

Romney's best strategy is to focus on the reasons why his experience at Bain makes him an expert at creating jobs. He should avoid being put on the defensive, quickly returning to a specific list of companies Bain helped start and the tens of thousands of jobs created by them. Finally, he should cap his explanation by drawing a contrast between capitalism (represented by Bain) and big-government socialism (represented by those who think capitalism should not involve the risk of failure). If questioned about inaccuracy in attack ads against him, Romney should be able to specifically enumerate the falsehoods.

Gingrich has no choice but to stand by his attacks against Bain. The attacks against Bain may have been ill-considered, since Romney has plenty of vulnerabilities and criticizing those instead wouldn't have backfired. But Gingrich has put too much time and money into the anti-Bain line. If he attempts to change horses midstream and runs away from the anti-Bain narrative, Gingrich will look like he's completely surrendering.

Gingrich must take great care in his attacks against Bain. If he appears to be criticizing capitalism, or appears in any way to be making his attacks from a leftist perspective, it could doom his chances. Remember, Gingrich is attempting to appeal to those voters who think Romney is too far to the left. The debates, particularly tomorrow's debate, will be a crucial test: When Gingrich attacks Bain, will the audience end up booing him? If so, he is in deep trouble.

Though the debate will focus on Romney and Bain, there is another (arguably more important) undercurrent, the battle between Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Each man wants the other to be out of the race so that he can coalesce the Anti-Romney vote. Some recent polling suggested Gingrich pulling ahead of Santorum in South Carolina, which would enable him to take sole possession the Anti-Romney mantle. But there was also a poll (a gross outlier) muddying the waters by showing Santorum ahead of Gingrich. Meanwhile, a group of influential social conservative leaders decided on Saturday that they would be supporting Santorum.

Once again, Romney benefits from that ambiguity. The polls over the next few days will be decisive. Gingrich needs the numbers to show him with a comfortable lead over Santorum. Santorum needs the numbers to show a very quick shift in the opposite direction, so that he can get a comfortable lead over Gingrich in time to get Gingrich's supporters to switch. Otherwise, the vote will end up as it did in New Hampshire, with the two men splitting the Anti-Romney vote and giving Romney a victory. If the polls don't cooperate, it's vital that one or the other demonstrate a clear superiority in the debates. Tomorrow's debate is arguably the more important, because a very strong contrast on Monday could move the poll numbers by the end of the week, while Thursday is too late (polling would take place on Friday and wouldn't be reported practically until the voting begins).