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Debates — More Than Money Or Retail Campaigning — May Decide GOP Nominee

by Ken Rudin
Nov 21, 2011

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What do Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney all have in common?

Well yes, aside from Pawlenty, they're all seeking the Republican nomination for president. But it's more than that. All of them have seen their chances for the nomination dramatically affected by their performance in the debates.

Never before in a campaign cycle has the story line — the rise and fall of frontrunners, the fluctuations in the polls — been almost exclusively about what comes out of the debates. Of the dozen or so of these encounters since May, nearly every one has altered the narrative and proven more intriguing than the previous one. And we can't wait for the next one.

There have been, to be sure, primary debate moments of the past that made people sit up and take notice. Think of Ronald Reagan's "I paid for that microphone" performance in New Hampshire in 1980, or Walter Mondale's "Where the beef" jibe at Gary Hart in 1984. Hillary Clinton's seemingly unimpeded march to the Democratic nomination four years ago suffered its first speed bump in an October 2007 debate in Philadelphia, where moderator Tim Russert asked about her conflicting answers regarding drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.

But this year they seem to happen with constant regularity.

In the search for the Romney alternative that's been the focus of the GOP contest for the past six months, these debates have given us a sense of the race that has been lacking in the retail campaigning going on in Iowa and New Hampshire. Once, it was thought that it would be Pawlenty who was going to rally the anti-Romney forces. Then it was Bachmann's turn, after a flashy debate debut and a victory in the Iowa straw poll. But after a series of gaffes and internal campaign woes she was eclipsed by Perry. When Perry went through a series of debate disasters, the attention turned to Cain, his winning speaking style and catchy phrases. When his numbers failed to add up, and his foreign policy limitations began to show — not to mention a series of charges of sexual harassment from his past — his stature quickly came back to Earth. And now, with just over six weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, it's Gingrich's turn, off a series of impressive debate performances. (And about those fees from Freddie Mac? We'll see.)

Once, it was the vaunted campaign machine, or the bulging bank accounts, or the number of key endorsements that defined who was up and who was down. This cycle, it's the debates, and not much else. Let me count the ways:

June 13 — Tim Pawlenty is criticized for his failure to go after Mitt Romney and "Romneycare" in their debate in New Hampshire. That criticism sticks with him as his support in Iowa, once thought to be considerable, begins to shrink. Romney, the frontrunner who anticipated the most attacks, leaves the debate unscathed. The star of the night, however, is thought to be Michele Bachmann, who delights the crowd with her announcement minutes into the debate that she has filed her intent to seek the presidency.

Aug. 11 — Pawlenty takes off the gloves, but his battle in this debate is with Bachmann, his fellow Minnesotan, not Romney; the consensus is that Bachmann got the better of the exchanges. For his part, Romney focuses on President Obama. Newt Gingrich, in what will be a familiar tactic, wins over the audience with attacks on the news media for "gotcha" questions. Two days later, Bachmann will win the Iowa straw poll, followed by Ron Paul and then Pawlenty, and Rick Perry will announce his candidacy. And the day after that, Pawlenty drops out of the race.

Sept. 7 — The debate turns into a Romney-Perry slugfest, with little heard from the other candidates. The audience at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley applauds when the moderator mentions the 234 people executed in Texas under Perry. Paul hits Perry for his executive order mandating the HPV vaccination for young girls. Perry talks about climate control and Galileo. He seems to lose his concentration in the latter part of the debate.

Sept. 12 — As he enters the debate as the clear frontrunner, Perry is assaulted over the HPV vaccine and his record regarding in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants. He also seems unsure of himself on social security. Bachmann, whose momentum seemed to come to a screeching halt when Perry got in the race, is especially aggressive, charging him with "crony capitalism." But all this comes at a time when she loses her campaign chair (Ed Rollins) and later says she heard the HPV vaccine causes "retardation."

Sept. 22 — Once again, the focus is Romney vs. Perry, and they keep their end of the bargain, focusing their ire on each other. Other candidates try to create momentum but they can't. Perry's attack on Romney's flip-flops often seem confused and incoherent. Herman Cain discussed his "999" economic plan. Bachmann suggests no one should be paying taxes. Gingrich again criticizes the moderators for asking questions designed to make Republicans attack each other. Gary Johnson, making a rare debate appearance, vouches for his neighbor's dogs. Romney is most impressive in this Orlando debate, but two days later, Cain wins the Florida straw poll.

Oct. 11 The review of Perry's performances is nearly unanimous: he has done worse in each succeeding debate, and for that reason Romney — back as the confident frontrunner — all but ignores him in the encounter at Dartmouth. Cain, who has jumped dramatically in the polls since his straw poll victory in Florida last month, is not convincing in his defense of his 999 plan. Most of the early part of the debate focuses on the plan's deficiencies, and the conclusion of many on the stage is that the numbers don't add up.

Oct. 18 — Perry and Romney get personal with each other, mostly over immigration and Romney's lawn-care company, and for the first time Romney seems off his game, often complaining that he is not getting his fair share of time to speak. The two agree that Romney's religion should not be an issue. Cain once again is on the defensive, not only with 999, but comments he made about an electrified fence between the U.S. and Mexico. Most of the candidates seem to be writing off the Latino vote. Jon Huntsman's boycott of the Nevada debate because of his solidarity with N.H. is not noticed.

Nov. 9 — Perry's "oops" moment, where he can't remember the Department of Energy, leads some to declare his candidacy finished. Cain, in the midst of dismissing sexual harassment charges leveled against him as baseless, refers to former House Speaker Pelosi as "Princess Nancy." Gingrich berates moderator for "absurd" questions.

Nov. 12 — In a debate devoted to foreign policy, Paul and Huntsman break from the pack, calling waterboarding "torture" and illegal. Huntsman dismisses Romney's call for trade action against China. The debate is Gingrich's strongest performance.

(Note: This list does not include the debate of May 5, which Romney, Huntsman, Bachmann and Gingrich did not participate.)

There are at least a dozen more debates scheduled, with the next one coming tomorrow (Nov. 22) at 8 pm on CNN. This intense schedule doesn't lend itself for much campaigning on the ground by the candidates, but maybe that's ok. Once, the argument was that Iowa and New Hampshire afforded candidates the opportunity to make their case, regardless the size of their bankbooks. This year, it's the debates.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Meanwhile, here's some mail from my in-box:

Q: In your [Nov. 9 Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation] trivia question, you said that Joe Paterno never ran for office even though a lot of Pennsylvania Republicans wanted him to. I'm sure I remember JoePa as a candidate for something, and I even have a button to prove it. — Lawrence Bennett, Altoona, Pa.

A: You may be referring to this button (at left), which was widely worn by Pennsylvania delegates at the 1988 GOP convention in New Orleans that nominated George H.W. Bush for president. Paterno was not running for anything that year; he gave a seconding speech on behalf of Bush, and that's what the button was for. (Also on the button: John Heinz, the incumbent senator who was about to win his third term in a landslide.) Years later, in 2004, Joe's son Scott Paterno — then 31 years old — was the Republican nominee against Rep. Tim Holden (D). He won the nomination based less on his campaign skills, which were limited, and more on his famous name. But Holden won the race by 20 points.

Q: Now we're sending troops to Australia? Is this a joke? Instead of focusing on the Republican food fight you should be paying attention to how Obama is violating his oath of office and spitting on us [progressives]. — Paula Townsend, Ames, Iowa

A: President Obama made the announcement on Wednesday, in Australia, saying he will send some 2,500 U.S. troops to the northern part of the country, a move seen as a message to China and its expanding influence in the world. Ron Paul, the GOP presidential contender who opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticized the move, saying, "We don't need troops in Australia to protect against anybody invading this country. It's all just mischief."

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. Last week's show focused on how the battle for the Republican presidential nomination is all about the debates, with special guests John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times, whose seemingly innocuous question to Rick Perry in a recent debate led to the famous "oops" moment; and Prof. Alan Schroeder, author of the 2008 book, "Presidential debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV." You can listen to the entire segment right here:

I received a slew of e-mails following Wednesday's show, when Harwood said this about debate preparation by the moderators: "We had different perspectives from different people participating in the debate, a lot of debate over what's an appropriate question to ask and who to ask it to. And also how much time to spend on the people who appear to be most likely to win the nomination, as compared to those who are benefiting from the free air time, but don't really have much of a chance. You promise fairness to the candidates, but not equal time."

As soon as I heard him say that I knew there would be an outcry from supporters of candidates who get less ink than the so-called "frontrunners." And there was. A similar outcry came when the Michele Bachmann camp unearthed a memo from John Dickerson, a consultant for CBS News (which had sponsored the most recent debate) about which candidates to call on. Here is Fox Nation's report on that skirmish. The following are just two of about 30 e-mails I received from those unhappy with Harwood's comment:

About the issue of debates and equal time for those candidates who are participating — the statement that one of your pundits said re questions about why some candidates got a lot and others just a litte and that time was decided based on who had the best chance of winning "... in the estimation of most people who follow this process." Who are "most people" and why do they get to determine how much air time each candidate gets? Why do they get to make that decision — how about the rest of us who'd like to compare all the candidates issue by issue? All of the candidates are working hard and spending money to win. Why does a select group get to handicap the field for a debate? To be transparent, all debates should be run them the way the League of Women Voters do it — all candidates get a chance to answer all questions. Anything else is unfair to the electorate. — Debra Gallek, West Grove, Pa.

On my way home I heard the remark that Ron Paul has no chance of winning the nomination. Have you not mentioned that Ron Paul is within spitting distance of winning Iowa? Also, you might want to check his record of winning straw polls and what his percentage of donations from military personnel is. — Jeff Staton, New Richmond, Ohio

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can be found in this spot every Wednesday. A randomly-selected winner will be announced each week during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. It's not too late to enter last week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt! DON'T FORGET TO CHECK BACK HERE ON WEDNESDAY FOR THE NEW PUZZLE.

A ScuttleButton-related note: Richard Kuh, the former Manhattan district attorney whose button was part of the Oct. 26 puzzle, died Nov. 17 at the age of 90.

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner-in-crime, Ron Elving, and me. The latest one focused on the rise of Newt Gingrich, the continuing saga of Herman Cain's woes, and the growing concern over Energy Secretary Chu's role in the Solyndra case. You can listen to it here:

An Iowa "Oops." A typical visit of mine to an NPR member station always includes an event or a fundraiser for supporters of public radio. That was the case on Nov. 7 at an event sponsored by Iowa Public Radio in Des Moines. Usually at these things I have a dialogue with the audience, throwing out trivia questions and rewarding correct answers with NPR buttons and pins. Well, as you might expect, the conversation turned to Bourke B. Hickenlooper, the former Iowa governor and senator. I know what you're thinking; how could any conversation not include Bourke B. Hickenlooper? From there we talked about Harold Hughes, who left the governorship to run for the Senate in 1968 to succeed the retiring Hickenlooper. (Oh my God, I'm not even finished with this story yet and you've already fallen asleep!) One of my trivia questions was, who succeeded Hughes as governor? I had Bob Ray, a Republican, in mind, and when someone in the audience answered Ray, he got a pin. But, as it turned out, I was wrong. I completely forgot all about Robert Fulton, the lt. gov., who served as governor for two weeks in Jan. 1969, the time between Hughes' resignation and Ray's swearing in. I was reminded of that by Phil Roeder, whom I first met when he was the communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party during the 1988 caucuses. The scary part is that I already had this button commemorating the "Fulton administration." OK, you can wake up now.

Remembering Hal Bruno. I got a lot of nice notes from old friends and acquaintances in the aftermath of my personal memories I shared in last week's column about Hal Bruno, my former boss at ABC News, who died on Election Day. My favorite came from Michele Davis, a communications official on the 1984 Reagan campaign and executive director of the Republican Governors Association in the late 1980s. "Thank you, Ken, for your wonderful salute to Hal Bruno," she wrote. "You did a wonderful job trying to convey to your audience the depth of this remarkable person. There aren't too many newsmen in today's world that I would even use the word 'love' in the same sentance — but without hesitation, I will shout from the rooftops that I LOVED HAL BRUNO. He treated everyone — from Presidents to chimney sweeps — with respect and dignity. He always made me laugh, and made me feel like I had something to say that was worth hearing. This planet and I will miss him deeply."

ON THE CALENDAR:

Nov. 22 — GOP presidential debate in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (CNN, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 7 — Virginia Senate debate, Univ/VA at Charlottesville.

Dec. 10 — GOP debate, Des Moines (ABC, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 15 — GOP debate, Sioux City, Iowa (Fox, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 19 — GOP debate, Johnston, Iowa (PBS/Des Moines Register, 8 pm ET).

Dec. 28 — Talk of the Nation/Political Junkie from Des Moines.

Jan. 3 — Iowa caucuses.

Jan. 7 — GOP debate, N.H. (ABC, 9 pm ET).

Jan. 8 — GOP debate, Concord, N.H. (NBC's Meet the Press, 9 am ET).

Jan. 16 — GOP debate, Myrtle Beach, S.C. (Fox, 9 pm ET).

Jan. 19 — GOP debate, Charleston, S.C. (CNN).

Jan. 23 — GOP debate, Tampa, Fla. (NBC).

Jan. 26 — GOP debate, Jacksonville, Fla. (CNN).

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

NOTE: There will be no Political Junkie column or ScuttleButton puzzle next week. I guess that's why they call it Thanksgiving!

This day in political history: Iowa Gov. William Beardsley (R) is killed as his automobile collides with a truck on a road near Des Moines. Beardsley, who did not seek re-election this year, will temporarily be succeeded by his lt. gov. until Jan. 13, when newly-elected Gov. Leo Hoegh (R) is sworn in (Nov. 21, 1954).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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