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Republican debate: Expect the unexpected

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When I talked to Mike Huckabee last February about his reluctance to run for president again, one of the major reservations he mentioned was the grueling schedule of debates that define the early primary season. “We just rehashed the same stuff, over and over. I was bored with it,” said the former Arkansas governor and the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses. “It was the same tripe, and I found it just incredibly disgusting, and ultimately meaningless.”

Kayana Szymczak


Gov. Rick Perry (R) and with Manchester, New Hampshire, Mayor Ted Gatsas.

Given the way things usually operate, that was a fair point. In 2007 and 2008, for instance, the Republican candidates spent the bulk of their time in those debates going round and round about the Iraq war--a subject upon which they generally agreed.

But the half-dozen debates that we have seen this year have turned out to be very different. I think you could make the argument that the debates, more than any other factor, have defined the arguments and redefined the expectations of the candidates. They are also one of the main reasons that the GOP electorate has remained so unsettled for so long.

(I know it still looks early on your calendar, where the election is still 13 months away. But generally by this point in the campaign cycle, the Republicans have had a clear frontrunner enjoying 40 percent or better support in the polls.)

Think of all the surprises we’ve seen thus far on the debate stage: Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty never really recovered from whiffing a question in an early debate on Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care law; he is now out of the race. That same debate saw Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) national breakout moment, one that helped set her on the way to winning the Iowa straw poll in August. And of course, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s performance thus far has called into question many of the high expectations that his supporters had when he entered the race two months ago.

It is with all that in mind that I am looking forward to moderating Tuesday night’s Washington Post-Bloomberg debate on the economy at Dartmouth College with talk-show host Charlie Rose and Bloomberg TV’s Julianna Goldman. If the earlier debates are any indication, we should all expect the unexpected. But I thought it might be worthwhile in my first post on our new campaign blog, Election 2012, to give our readers a sense of what they can be looking for.

First of all, of course, is the subject matter: the economy. That is at the top of voters’ concerns, so we thought it deserved two hours of singular focus. No gimmicks, no gotchas, just a discussion that is as serious as the issues that Americans are dealing with on a daily basis.

Viewers will also notice that the setting looks different. Rather than standing at lecterns, the candidates will be seated at a single table.

The format will consist of four segments, including one in which the candidates will ask each other questions. I’m especially interested to see how that one goes.

And we will bring in a few outside voices as well.

So please join us at the table tomorrow night. The debate will stream on, alongside live coverage from the Fix’s Chris Cillizza. It will also air on Bloomberg Television, Bloomberg Radio, and WBIN-TV in New Hampshire.

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