Last debate, last stand?

Tonight, the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination will hold the 20th nationally-televised debate — or 24th, or 22nd, depending on what counts as an official debate and what doesn’t.  Do Mike Huckabee’s forums count?  How about Jim DeMint’s Palmetto Forum in September?  Apparently not, but that’s just fine, because we’ve had plenty as it is.  The candidates seem to agree, as I note in my column for The Week, since the next two debates have been canceled, and apparently no one has committed to doing the only other one left on the schedule after tonight, an NPR/PBS debate from Portland, Oregon on March 19th.

Once I get past venting my frustration at the utter waste of time these debates turned out to be, I note that the two men with the most to gain or lose tonight are Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.  And then … I channel just a little more frustration:

That means Wednesday’s debate is perhaps the last time we will see the candidates on stage together in this primary cycle. Can we expect that this event will be any more meaningful than the 19 game shows that preceded it? Probably not, but it could be important for Gingrich and Santorum. John King gets the nod again as moderator for CNN, a curious decision after King’s performance in the debates overall and especially since this might be the final opportunity to have Wolf Blitzer run the show. If Gingrich can rekindle the embers of his campaign with another attack on the media — especially one that produces a fumbling response, like King’s in South Carolina, rather than the far more effective riposte Blitzer gave Gingrich in Florida — he could perhaps generate a third surge among conservatives.

For Santorum, his momentum makes him the biggest target in the debate. CNN will no doubt open a host of social-conservative issues and force Santorum to talk about contraception and Satan all night long. If he falls into that trap, his momentum will dissipate quickly. If he can turn the tables on King and force the conversation back to religious and economic liberty, Santorum will ease fears that he is too distracting to beat Obama on the economy.

In the end, though, this debate will probably produce nothing more than a final round of gotcha moments and a lot of talk about negative ads from other candidates in the field. The only game changers will come on perceived gaffes and facial expressions rather than actual policy differences and defense of value systems. After 20 of these debates, that will sound like an appropriate finale to American Political Gladiators, which has all of the political substance of the original, with none of the costumes or suspense.

Gingrich has already committed publicly to staying away from negative attacks in the debate:

Appearing on Fox News’s  America’s Newsroom on Wednesday Gingrich  promised he would “focus on the big solutions,” in tonight’s debate and “stay out of the kind of negativity that unfortunately has characterized way too much of this race.” When asked about a report that said his daughters wanted him to appear more presidential, Gingrich responded that he was “behaving too much like a normal candidate” after feeling the brunt of Romney’s advertising blitz in Florida.

“I think they were concerned that the weight of negative advertising by Romney had drawn us into a back and forth that wasn’t particularly helpful,” he said. “I think what people want to know is, ‘Are you capable of solving the country’s problems?’”

Unfortunately, that probably means that Gingrich won’t get too much attention, thanks to the fundamentally unserious nature of the format.  To the extent that Mitt Romney decides to go on the attack — and he may not at all, with his standing rebounding a bit in Arizona and Michigan, if not nationally — it will be to go after Rick Santorum.  Santorum will probably go after Romney on health care reform and Ron Paul on foreign policy, but he has no great need to go after Gingrich, either.  Gingrich will be a non-factor in Michigan, Santorum’s best shot to win a primary next Tuesday, thanks to Gingrich’s decision to stay out of the state to concentrate on his native state of Georgia, one of the Super Tuesday states.

Politico previews Santorum’s moment at center stage, and predicts a tough round of questioning on social-conservative issues:

One point to watch is how he and his rivals handle discussions of faith (the debate falls on Ash Wednesday) at a time when theology, world views and belief systems are frequently mentioned in the campaign — usually with respect to President Barack Obama.

One thing seems certain: The moderator is likely to ask Santorum at some point about some of his more controversial statements, such as remarks about birth control, or his backer Foster Friess’s widely publicized joke about women using aspirin “between their knees” as birth control.

Complicating Santorum’s task on the eve of the debate was his defense of a speech — unearthed and splashed on the Drudge Report on Tuesday — he made in 2008 in which he talked about Satan infiltrating the United States.

Santorum might be asked about it by moderator John King and could use such a question — or others like it — to slam the media, which he has said is trying to “destroy” a conservative candidate. The approach would be similar to the way Gingrich leveraged a confrontation with King at the debate before the South Carolina primary, when he was asked about claims made by his ex-wife.

Santorum will need to avoid seeming angry or defensive, reactions Romney is likely to try to provoke. Romney may also attempt to drive a wedge between Santorum and the rest of the GOP by seizing on his past comments about banning contraception, although that’s risky for a candidate who has his own problems with the GOP base.

Overall, the timing affords Santorum the chance to passionately make a case for himself before a televised audience, one of the elements of his candidacy his backers find most appealing. Just as important, a strong performance could vault him ahead of Romney in the two states in which a number of voters say they are still undecided.

As Gingrich proved in more than one debate, getting angry at the moderator can prove fruitful for rallying the base.  John King’s presence on stage, and his deer-in-the-headlights response to Gingrich in the South Carolina debate, may leave Santorum an opening for that strategy. However he deals with these topics, Santorum has to show that he can both defend himself while bringing the debate back to the topics of religious and economic liberty rather than the relative merits of the Pill and IUDs.  If he can pull that off, Santorum may well rally the rest of the fence-sitters in the last national debate game show gladiatorial combat of the season.

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