Are you ready for the Gingrich/Huntsman debate?

Michael Dougherty’s right. This is a crafty play by both of them, but especially by Gingrich.

Newt Gingrich gets to elevate Huntsman in New Hampshire, which could hurt Mitt Romney.

Gingrich believes that he can beat anyone in a debate and will look smarter than any of his opponents. The more air-time he gets, the better for him.

Mitt Romney looks like a chicken for not accepting a debate challenge with his chief rival.

Huntsman benefits from being elevated and by getting lots of air-time himself.

I thought it was bizarre of Cain to want to debate Gingrich one-on-one when he did, not just because that’s the most obvious mismatch on policy know-how in the field but because Cain was the frontrunner at the time and Newt was desperate to share the spotlight. Why help promote a guy whom many of your own supporters have as their number two? That was Cain acting out of hubris, not strategically. For Gingrich, the calculus is different. There’s little risk of him doing major damage to himself in a debate, and even if he “loses” this one to Huntsman on the merits, it doesn’t matter because Huntsman’s not competing in Iowa. Any New Hampshire votes that Newt loses because of a stellar performance by Huntsman will be recouped if/when he wins the caucuses and gets a giant bounce among undecideds in NH. The more important thing right now is to weaken Romney in anticipation of that bounce and having Huntsman on the stage does that in two ways: One, it elevates a guy who’s been selling himself for months in New Hampshire as an alternative to Mitt, and two, it gives them a shared opportunity to stand onstage together and dump all over Romney for ducking Gingrich’s debate challenge. Via RCP:

With the Republican presidential primary appearing to have narrowed into a two-man contest, Human Events and Red State moved quickly to lock down a date for a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

The two organizations went so far this past Monday as to firm up the Annenberg Theater at the Newseum in Washington as the venue on Dec. 19 after another debate originally scheduled that day was canceled. For its part, the Newseum was excited to host the pre-primary forum.

There was just one problem. While Gingrich was ready to take his place on the stage, the Romney campaign politely declined in a series of mostly e-mail exchanges…

Going forward, Guerriero said, they have asked the candidates if they would agree to such a debate after the first few primary contests. Gingrich, he said, “is itching to do it,” but the Romney campaign “has been more circumspect.”

Debating Romney is riskier for Gingrich since so much of the enthusiasm for him right now comes from the idea that he’ll mop the floor with Obama in a one-on-one next fall. If he goes one-on-one with Romney and Romney holds his own — and why wouldn’t he? — then Gingrich’s biggest advantage will be blunted. The fact that he’s willing to do it anyway shows his own hubris at work. But he’s lucked out by having Romney duck him: Now he and Huntsman can take turns in front of the camera calling Mitt gutless for refusing a tough forum (just as he’s refused the tough forums on Sunday morning for months now) and tear him down that way. In fact, even if Huntsman dazzles everyone and surges so mightily in New Hampshire that he ends up winning the state, that’s still much less of a problem for Gingrich than Romney winning the state would be. Newt will, after all, almost certainly win South Carolina if he wins Iowa, no matter what happens up north (he’s a Georgia native, remember), and if he wins South Carolina then he’s the heavy, heavy favorite in Florida — especially given his newly huge lead there. Huntsman’s more poorly funded than Romney too (although that could change depending upon how generous his pop feels) and has far less establishment backing, so Newt’s in a better position to take him on in an extended primary than he is Romney. An important consideration for a guy who still has basically no campaign organization.

Tina posted a clip earlier of George Will’s interview with Laura Ingraham this morning, but that version didn’t have their entire chat. Skip ahead to around 8:45 of this one. Second look at Huntsman? If you’re worried about nominating a candidate who palpably hates his own base, hey — been there, done that.