Friday, January 6, 2012

Primary Debate Tomorrow on ABC

The first primary debate since mid-December will take place tomorrow on ABC at 9:00pm Eastern. The Republican field has been winnowed down to six candidates: Gingrich, Huntsman, Paul, Perry, Romney, and Santorum. The debate will take place just a few days before the New Hampshire primary, where Mitt Romney has been leading in the polls by a significant margin all year. Romney's competitors will be tempted to make him a punching bag. Rick Santorum probably sees himself as the chief Anti-Romney, Newt Gingrich is reportedly steaming after his loss in Iowa, and for Jon Huntsman, it will be the last chance to be relevant. Rick Perry has historically enjoyed going on the attack against Romney, but if his strategy is based soley on South Carolina, he may realize he needs to attack Santorum instead.

Romney has a familiar frontrunner's challenge: How do you deal with a debate where everyone is attacking you, again and again? Though Romney has never experienced the spike-and-crash that others have--leading some to wrongly suggest that he hasn't been vetted yet--Romney should be used to being attacked. The key is to answer the opponent's substantive arguments, but not to show annoyance. Romney has gone both routes in past debates. Sometimes he is disciplined and is able to parry the attacks with good humor; other times he lets his opponents get under his skin. The latter leads to mistakes, like Romney's $10,000 challenge to Perry in a December debate. The debate will therefore be an important test for Romney, because most everyone will be trying to make him stumble.

Is the pile-on-Romney strategy appropriate in this case? For Santorum it probably is, as Gingrich may be falling under his own weight (one South Carolina poll shows Santorum slightly ahead of Gingrich). For Gingrich and Perry, the answer is no. Their target should be Santorum, who threatens to unite the Anti-Romney voters under his own banner. To stand a chance, they must launch an assault on Santorum that brings them down to their own post-crash polling level.

What should viewers look for in the debate? Romney has been criticized over Romneycare and his tenure at Bain Capital in multiple debates, but his opponents may come up with new material. The other thing to watch for is how Santorum's new position affects the dynamic. In previous debates, he was irrelevant and often whined about it. Now he has the chance to show what he can do with a starring role. And attacks against Santorum will be entirely new territory.