Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Final? Primary Debate Tomorrow

Tomorrow evening may be one of the last debates to be held during this primary season. CNN will host the debate at 8:00pm Eastern. The debate schedule for March has not been finalized, and it's unclear whether there will even be an additional debate prior to Super Tuesday (March 6th).

The last debate was held just before the Florida Primary, and much has changed since then. Newt Gingrich's campaign is in shambles, and Mitt Romney's campaign is facing a serious challenge from Rick Santorum. The debate will be an important opportunity for each of the candidates--particularly those who lack financial resources--to make a good impression before Michigan and Arizona vote on February 28th.

For the first time, Santorum is considered a legitimate contender. In previous debates, no one considered him a threat, and he did not get attacked by any of his competitors. Instead, Santorum was the one always on the attack. In one debate last month, Santorum resembled a prosecutor, repeatedly challenging the conservative credentials of his opponents while receiving no attacks in return. Tomorrow will be different, as each candidate has ample incentive to finally put Santorum on the defensive.

As with the debates before Florida, Romney has been humbled by recent losses and must show that he can win a debate against the man who beat him. Romney should treat Santorum the way he treated Gingrich in the pre-Florida debates. Judging by what we have seen, Santorum is probably better in one-on-one exchanges than Gingrich. But unlike the rest, Santorum has not yet been challenged. He is not used to playing defense. That's the one advantage Romney has: His attacks against Santorum will be new, and Santorum does not have experience in taking hits during the debates.

Gingrich also needs to attack Santorum, as they are competing for identical voters. Gingrich may hate Romney more, but Santorum is the bigger threat by far. If Santorum's plan to take the South is successful, Gingrich will have nothing left. To stand any chance of winning the nomination, Gingrich must demonstrate why he--not Santorum--deserves to be the conservative alternative to Romney. However, as we have seen in many previous debates, just because a strategy is optimal doesn't mean a candidate will use it. If Gingrich allows his personal hatred to take over, he may spend more of his time focusing on Romney.

As for Romney, he will still face criticism from his opponents, especially Santorum. Santorum won points last time by attacking Romneycare. As far back as September, Elephant Watcher wrote about the candidates' inability to effectively attack Romneycare with specifics. It wasn't until mid-January that Santorum became the first candidate to do so. Romney will need to be prepared to defend Romneycare all over again, from top to bottom. He will also probably be questioned about his gaffe back in January about not caring about poor people, and he'll need a good answer.

Tomorrow is Santorum's chance to prove himself. Not only will he be challenged for the first time by his opponents, he will also face scrutiny from the debate moderators. The moderators will ask Santorum some difficult questions about his vulnerabilities, particularly his extreme social views (e.g. opposition to contraception). The media will attempt to paint Santorum as a religious fundamentalist. They attempted to do the same thing to Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Huckabee was able to respond very effectively. Santorum is no Huckabee, but he must appear reasonable and in control.