December 12, 2007

Will This Debate Have 'Seismic' Impact?

The Des Moines Register can be forgiven for trying to drum up viewership for the 10th Republican presidential primary debate this year, three weeks before the Iowa caususes. The Register will sponsor the debate this afternoon, taking place at the odd and relatively inaccessible time of 1 pm CT, and they can use all the viewers they can muster during the workday. The chances of "seismic" revelations at this point seem very remote:

The Des Moines Register's presidential debates, set for today and Thursday, are the last meetings of the candidates before the leadoff Iowa caucuses and most meaningful of the dozens already held this year, campaign strategists agree.

Republicans, scheduled to debate today, will meet with the caucus campaign in flux as better-known candidates aim for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the surprise leader in Iowa with three weeks until caucus night. ....

"With just over 20 days left until the Iowa caucuses, the Des Moines Register debates could have a seismic impact on the race," said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist who ran Democrat Dick Gephardt's 2004 Iowa caucus campaign. "With so many undecideds still looking to make up their minds, a fatal flub or a shining performance could fundamentally change this race and significantly shape the outcome of the Iowa caucuses."

The chances for a shining performance seem remote, at least not anything above what has already been given in the previous nine debates. The media and the viewers will not hang through the entire debate looking for perfection, but instead looking for a stumble that could recast the race in its final moments. It's the political equivalent of watching NASCAR for the crashes.

So what has to happen for the candidates? Let's take them one at a time:

Mike Huckabee -- The surprise frontrunner in Iowa has to have a great performance again today. Iowa is the only foundation he has for a credible run at the nomination. A big win here, combined with a strong showing in New Hampshire -- a long shot at the moment -- could propel him into the upper echelons of both attention and fundraising, and permanently derail Mitt Romney. No mistakes, connect emotionally, and seem reasonably conservative.

Mitt Romney -- The other candidate with the most to lose here has to go on offense against Huckabee's record, but without the attacking quality of the last debate's contretemps with Rudy Giuliani. Romney cannot afford a loss to Huckabee, and he has to convince Iowans that he can represent their goals and aspirations better than the Arkansas governor. He has to stay focused and ignore Rudy while gently gunning for Huckabee. It'll be a tightrope act.

Rudy Giuliani -- All Hizzoner has to do is stay out of the way and look presidential. The CNN/YouTube debate took a bite out of his momentum. He has to keep the debate focused on immigration and fiscal discipline and away from social policy. Rudy needs a good performance, but not a great one, and will do best if he's not the central focus.

John McCain -- McCain hasn't seriously competed in Iowa, and this debate won't make much difference in this state. He's banking on a New Hampshire surprise, and surprise, he's in a position where it's not impossible. Tax cuts, spending control, and social policy will suit him best. An extended dialogue on immigration hurts him here, but again, he's not all that concerned with Iowa. If he relaxes and enjoys himself, he's probably golden.

Fred Thompson -- Put simply, Fred has to show up and take control of this debate. He has to own the stage. Anything less, and he's out of the race altogether. Despite a large following at his entry, he hasn't shown up in the primary contests thus far. If he plays analyst instead of candidate, he's toast.

As for the rest, at this stage, the Register should have taken a pass. They have not developed into contenders by any measure, and the inclusion of Alan Keyes is a strange joke. The DMR could have given us a chance to hear five realistic candidates with some time to get into detail on the issues, but instead chose to have nine with time for little more than soundbites. If they wanted a "seismic" impact from this debate, they would have structured it for that outcome.


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