While the early months of the campaign featured a string of debates at a blistering pace, we haven’t had a GOP debate since Florida. And worse, we don’t have another debate scheduled, with all candidates but Gingrich dropping out of the planned Super Tuesday debate. Therefore, to the extent debates can shape the nomination fight, this is the last impression the four GOP candidates will leave.
But what impression should it be? Here’s what I’ll be watching for out of each candidate tonight.
Mitt Romney – Understand Tone: Romney’s biggest problem in debates is a misunderstanding of tone. There are generally two types of Presidential candidates: those who act Presidential and those who don’t. People may flirt with the latter candidates, but at the end of the day they tend to choose the former. The problem for Romney is that he tends to confuse “Presidential” with “Stiff and Robotic.” It’s as though his only interaction with the concept of “Presidential” is watching the animatronics at the Hall of Presidents at DisneyWorld. Mitt needs to channel his tone from the second Florida debate and walk the fine line between strong and combative (calling out Gingrich’s Washington record), and crazy and shrill ($10,000 bet). His best opportunity to establish this will likely be an attack on Santorum’s fiscal conservatism bona fides, and his best way to accomplish this is evoking the imagery of a “creature of Washington” like he did with Gingrich.
Rick Santorum – Punch Romney Fast: Rick Santorum performed brilliantly in the last debate by positioning himself above the fray as “the grown up” who was not involved in the Romney-Gingrich mudslinging. Then he pivoted to smack Romney on health care. Romney floundered to defend himself when pushed off his first-line talking points. As the front-runner, Santorum can no longer claim to be above the fray, but he can punch Romney off his script early.
Newt Gingrich – Target Romney: The cancellation of the next debate was every candidate saying that Newt is no longer relevant. He needs to capture the agenda early in the debate and force everyone to react to him. Newt needs to bloody Romney before Santorum does, forcing Santorum to echo Newt and thereby re-establish himself as the alternative to Mitt. If Newt controls the attack agenda and can keep that up through Super Tuesday he can wait to pick up delegates as Santorum loses steam. But this is make-or-break for Newt — if Santorum sets the agenda, Newt will be finished.
Ron Paul – Plan Comebacks: Ron Paul’s friendly old coot routine is the source of his appeal. He is not a serious candidate in this election, but he can improve his overall profile (and that of his son, who he is clearly grooming to become the next libertarian GOP figurehead) by becoming a debate sound bite. Since his policies are not newsworthy, his only opportunity to catch media glory is with a zinger of a response. He should be working to predict the talking points of the other candidates and prepping his laugh line for when John King turns to him and says, “What do you have to say about that Dr. Paul?”
Enjoy the debate tonight, since it may be our last one for a while.