Debate preview: And then there were five

Tonight, the latest edition of Survivor: Republican Primary moves once again to Fox News Channel, which will televise and moderate tonight’s debate in South Carolina.  Thanks to the withdrawal of Jon Huntsman, the stage will get cozier and perhaps the responses lengthier in the game-show format used in almost all of the media debates over the last several months.  This won’t be the final debate before Saturday’s primary in the Palmetto State; CNN will air one on Thursday evening, presumably with the same number of candidates, although at this rate … who knows?

When Michele Bachmann withdrew after the Iowa caucus, her absence arguably changed the dynamic of the debates.  Bachmann had consistently attacked the other Republicans on stage, sometimes very effectively, and particularly Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.  Huntsman’s withdrawal will not change the debate dynamic much, if at all, unless Fox (and then CNN) allow for longer responses rather than more questions.  It also could allow each candidate to answer every question, something that was impossible with seven, eight, and nine candidates on stage at the same time.  The absence of Huntsman might mean fewer questions on China in particular, although Paul’s presence guarantees that foreign policy will remain a key debate topic throughout the rest of the primary debates.  Otherwise, it’s going to basically be a repeat of the last several debates, and the big question will be whether one of Mitt Romney’s opponents can find a way to (a) trip him up, or (b) find a way to distinguish himself as the clear alternative to a Romney nomination.

Here’s how I see the strategy for tonight’s final five:

  • Mitt Romney — Romney has suddenly broken through the 25% “ceiling” this week, perhaps benefiting from the field’s consolidation, or from the focus on his business expertise.  All Romney needs to do in South Carolina is reassure conservatives and not make any mistakes.  Expect him to talk about family values, the sanctity of life, and the need for a leader who understands how to turn around malfunctioning organizations.  He will need to ignore attacks from other candidates and look presidential, his successful strategy throughout most of these debates.
  • Newt Gingrich — Gingrich vaulted to the top of the polls by acting like a statesman, defending Republicans and attacking the media moderators in the debates.  He lost his advantage by reverting to Nasty Newt, attacking Romney by demonizing the process of creative destruction, and doing the media’s job for them.  I’m not sure how Gingrich can recover, but it probably won’t be by doubling down on “King of Bain” attacks, especially after the booing at the Huckabee forum.  The moderators won’t let him off the hook, but he could neutralize it by saying that Romney on his worst day is better than Obama on his best, but that Gingrich’s economic plan is better than Romney’s and Gingrich has the skill to push it through Congress on his terms.  Otherwise, with Huntsman out, Gingrich will find himself outgunned on stage by Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul regarding Bain, with only one ally …
  • Rick Perry — Like Huntsman, it’s difficult to understand why Perry remains in the race.  He bombed in Iowa even after dropping a ton of money there.  He’s doing so poorly in South Carolina that he’s at risk of losing his spot on stage in Thursday’s debate — and if CNN lets him in anyway, they’re going to get an earful from Buddy Roemer.  He’s only at 6% in the latest Fox national poll, which was a single point above Huntsman, and he’s even lower than that in the RCP polling average in Florida.  Perry will have to go on the attack in all directions tonight, and as we have seen in past debates, Perry is not skilled in attacking others on stage extemporaneously.  At the same time, he will need to redefine himself for South Carolina voters, so expect to see a lot of references to his military service and social-conservative values.  Just getting through to the end won’t suffice for Perry.
  • Rick Santorum — Santorum needs a win in South Carolina; a second place moral victory won’t do, and anything less than second is the end of the line.  He needs to focus on his own economic plan, which should resonate with working-class Republicans, and his extensive knowledge on foreign policy; with Huntsman out, he has the most experience in this realm on stage, and that should give him an opportunity to make Ron Paul look kooky.  Santorum needs to also continue looking composed and presidential, where he had problems in earlier debates.  I think South Carolina voters will appreciate his economic approach as well as his very consistent commitment to social-conservative values, and a good debate here could do what the family-values assembly tried to do in Texas this weekend — make him the conservative alternative to Romney.
  • Ron Paul — On substance, Paul won’t change anything.  Stylistically, though, he could do a few things to get people to take him more seriously.  He needs to find a suit that fits properly (I’m amazed that the campaign still can’t get that right), but less superficially, he needs to quit pitching his voice upward and waving his arms around when challenged.  His base loves that, but his base won’t get him elected.  It adds to the crazy-uncle-in-the-attic vibe that Paul needs to shed if he’s going to have an impact anywhere else in the country except Nevada.  If Santorum challenges him on Iran tonight — and Santorum will be itching to do just that — that vibe will come on strong.
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