Sunday, January 22, 2012

Debate Tomorrow on NBC

The latest installment of the January debates will take place tomorrow at 9:00pm Eastern on NBC. As with the week before South Carolina's primary, debates are scheduled for Monday and Thursday this week. Florida's primary will be held next Tuesday, on January 31st.

Mitt Romney enjoyed a big lead in all of the Florida polls, but they were taken prior to Newt Gingrich's win in South Carolina. All of the candidates will likely see both Romney and Gingrich as threats to win the Florida Primary. Rick Santorum, in particular, ought to feel the need to go on the offensive. Gingrich has tended to shy away from attacking other candidates during debates, as has Romney. Tomorrow's debate may be the first time each feels a compelling need to attack the other.

The debates present both an opportunity and a danger for Gingrich. He has been comfortable at the debates, and has used them to his advantage. However, he has also built the debates into his campaign narrative: Gingrich claims that he is electable solely because he is so good at debates. As the idea goes, even though polls show Barack Obama beating Gingrich by a wide margin, Gingrich would beat Obama in the debates.

Therein lies the danger for Gingrich: If Gingrich does badly at a debate--particularly if he suffers in one-on-one exchanges with Romney--his narrative is undone before a live audience of millions. Expectations are so high that even a single poor debate performance could cause Gingrich's electability argument to collapse like a house of cards.

The media narrative is that Gingrich is very good at debates. But as Elephant Watcher observed in December, Gingrich has not fared particularly well when he's been in one-on-one exchanges with opponents. He has not done that well at what one would ordinarily call "debating," that is, arguing back and forth with an opponent. Instead, he has gotten applause during the debates by delivering interesting answers and criticizing the liberal debate moderators (who can't fight back). Thus, the media and the audiences seem to have conflated "being good while at the debates" with "being good at debate."

This presents the big question for Gingrich: If he doesn't get an opportunity to chew out a debate moderator, and if he shrinks when he's attacked by Romney or Santorum, what happens to his electability argument?

Meanwhile, Romney has his own electability argument to consider. Essentially the entire reason for Romney's current support is that he is considered the most likely to defeat Obama. The polls alluded to earlier support this belief. Though Romney deflected the Bain attacks well, they were an attempt to undermine his electability. The questions about Romney's tax returns and overseas investments also serve to cast doubt on his electability. Romney's first priority should be to allay concerns about any financial skeletons he may have. Second, he should get into an extended debate encounter with Gingrich to prove that Gingrich is not the debate wizard he claims to be.