GOP debate tonight: quick look at the field

by Brendan Monaghan

Despite threats of television preemption and in an act of great disrespect to the President of the United States Himself, the office, and indeed, the entire country, the selfish Republican candidates for nomination in 2012 will, in fact, be debating on Wednesday at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. Expectations vary greatly for the night’s eight contestants with some hoping to put some distance between themselves and the field, and others just hoping to stay on the road. Texas Governor Rick Perry joins the debate circuit officially, replacing former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who failed to get out of the driveway, despite leaving his campaign car running for five years. The rest of the field should be pretty well known by now, and each has a lot to accomplish on Wednesday night.

The matchup that will be given the most attention will be between Governors Perry and Mitt Romney, who will take turns pretending to be the frontrunner. Perry’s appeal goes well beyond the fleeting flavor of the month popularity some might have dismissed and has quickly turned in to a sizable, durable lead. The Perry surge has also withstood left-wing mudslinging as well as a series of early gaffes that would have sank lesser candidates (see below). This means Perry can continue to stay on message without worrying about making major mistakes. If Politico’s series of backhanded compliments are any indication, these mistakes- should they occur- would be few, far-between, and not particularly damaging. “The reluctant debater,” as they call him, consistently wins by not losing. For the frontrunner, that’s not a bad strategy early on.

Governor Romney, on the other hand, has the advantage of appearing the most like he belongs on stage next year against the President. Focusing like a laser on his opponent in the general election, Romney calmly and deliberately draws contrasts with the current President, preferring to appear above the petty squabbles of his Republican rivals. Romney is clearly courting moderates, independents, and disaffected Democrats who might be watching, might be open to voting Republican, but who might otherwise fear the collapse of the Republic itself should Rick Perry be elected. Clearly, this is his best strategy for keeping them onboard, and with Romney expected to win New Hampshire comfortably, he needn’t attack Perry. Well, at least not too much.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, however, is in the most desperate need of a convincing win tonight. Half of any political campaign is holding your own, and she is doing a miserable job at it. The vaporization of her support is chiefly a demolition work by the Texas governor. After buying the Iowa Straw Poll wholesale, her war chest is running dry. It’s Perry who is soaking up all the Tea and has been since he entered stage right. By exploiting Perry’s potential weaknesses on issues like immigration or spending (which Tea Party voters have overlooked so far), she may be able to scratch and claw her way back in to contention. True, it’s still early, but if she can’t close a widening gap between her and Perry (or even stay consistently in third place), she may need to rethink her retirement from Congress.

Ron Paul has the unique challenge in that he doesn’t have to distinguish himself from the field- he does that by standing still- but save us from his followers. This may come as a surprise, but most Republican voters don’t actually hate the Texas Congressman. Their assessments usually begin with “well, I like him on economic issues, but . . .” His biggest liability is not that he’s perceived as being to President Obama’s left on foreign policy or wanting to legalize everything: it’s the conspiracy theorists who troll message boards and stuff unscientific post-debate polls in his name. In doing so, they drown out his more reasonable supporters who are with him on monetary policy or marriage equality but don’t think there’s a sinister one world government run by lizard people (for the record, he doesn’t think so either).

Rounding out the field, Senator Rick Santorum is his own worst enemy, sick and tired of being remembered for his over-the-top rhetoric on homosexuality and abortion, yet genuinely puzzled that the issues he continues to draw attention to have overshadowed his talking points on foreign policy and economics. That Speaker Newt Gingrich’s numbers still haven’t gone anywhere, even after a strong, passionate, engaging performance in the last debate should be a sign he is beyond hope of redemption. As the saying goes, he wanted to run for president in the worst way, and it’s safe to say that’s what he’s done.

Ambassador Jon Huntsman can answer the two central questions surrounding his campaign, “Who are you?” and “Why should I vote for you and not someone else?” by highlighting his own, solid record of job creation, tax reform, and fiscal sanity as Governor of Utah. His greatest strength, however, is foreign policy, and his credentials as Ambassador to China run circles around the field. Finally, Herman Cain needs to be more specific. As for predictions, this is sure to be a debate worthy of forcing the President to reheat his old failed policies a day later before a cheering half of Congress and go up against Kid Rock, Lady Antebellum, and Maroon 5’s pre-game concert on Thursday evening.

Brendan is a graduate student at Portland State University, where he hosts the KPSU “Right Jab” radio program, and a regular contributor at Oregon Catalyst. Brendan is studying political science, and graduated from The Ohio State University in 2007, with a degree in political science.