Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Final Pre-Florida Debate Tomorrow

Tomorrow evening, the candidates will take the stage for the last time before the Florida Primary. The debate is set to air on CNN at 8:00pm Eastern. Once again, Newt Gingrich will be challenged to meet the high expectations he has set for himself as a debate artist. During Monday's debate, Gingrich did not fall apart, but he did not really shine. The media took note that it wasn't one of his strongest performances. Gingrich even complained that the debate audience wasn't permitted to cheer--apparently assuming that the audience would otherwise have expressed support for him.

The burden is on Gingrich to do well because he has made his debate expertise a central part of his candidacy. If he does poorly, he will get a lot of negative press. Even if he's just average, like last time, a second less-than-stellar performance will be seen as a defeat. The media may even call into question whether he's as good a debater as he claims.

After Monday's debate, the media even began to notice for the first time that Gingrich has relied heavily on attacking liberal debate moderators who aren't allowed to defend themselves. If the CNN moderators choose not to give Gingrich any reasons to attack them, Gingrich will lack his most valuable ammunition.

Gingrich has extra reason to perform well at tomorrow's debate: He's slipping in the Florida polls. Although the polling situation is not totally clear, some of the most recent polls suggest that Gingrich is losing his post-South Carolina bounce, and that Mitt Romney may be retaking the lead. Since it's expensive to advertise in Florida, and since Romney has the money advantage, Gingrich has an uphill battle. Negative ads have been very effective against Gingrich in the past, as his implosion in Iowa demonstrated. Gingrich needs a solid debate performance to counteract the negative ads. There will be few debates scheduled after Florida, making tomorrow's debate all the more critical.

Romney and Rick Santorum will need to choose whether and how often to go on the offensive. Though Gingrich was able to parry some of Romney's attacks during Monday's debate, Romney was able to appear tough. That's a contrast to the defensive posture Romney took in some prior debates. Since the polling appears to be moving in Romney's direction, his campaign may credit Romney's willingness to attack Gingrich face-to-face. At the same time, going on the offensive always carries a risk. If the campaign credits the negative ads, rather than the debate, then they will seek to avoid any unnecessary fireworks.