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What the next 60 days will tell us about the presidential race

at 06:30 AM ET, 08/15/2011


Republican presidential candidates pose for a photo before the start of the Iowa GOP/Fox News debate Thursday at the C.Y. Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
In the next 60 days, there are five presidential debates scheduled — a series of standoffs that amount to a testing ground for the top-tier Republican candidates as the campaign picks up momentum.

The debates will come in quick succession after Labor Day: Sept. 7 in California, Sept. 12 and 22 in Florida, Oct. 11 in New Hampshire and Oct. 18 in Nevada.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has slow-walked the race to date but remains its frontrunner, has committed to attending all five debates. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is confirmed for the three September get-togethers but has made no decision about the two October debates, according to spokeswoman Alice Stewart.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the newest entrant into the race, has made no decision about how many debates he will participate in.

“We have not committed to any,” said Perry adviser Dave Carney. “We will consider the opportunities, dates, rules, etcetera, and make the decisions in due time.”

While Carney is seeking to keep Perry’s options open, it’s the Texas governor who has the most to prove in the race and, therefore, is the least able to skip these debates — particularly given that the frontrunning Romney is committed to all five.

Perry’s profile — a Southern governor with a record of job creation success in Texas — has clearly struck a chord among Republican primary voters.

But, for large swaths of the primary electorate, particularly in places such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Perry is almost entirely undefined as a presidential candidate.

Unlike Bachmann and Romney, who have each held their own in the two debates to date, Perry has yet to show he not only belongs on the stage with the two frontrunners, but also is better equipped than they to articulate the current mood of the Republican electorate.

We have said time and again in this space that debates matter because they are the rare moment in an off-year where likely voters are paying attention and have a chance to compare the candidates side-by-side.

Remember that former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was building momentum as the alternative to Romney going into the June New Hampshire debate. His weak performance stunted that momentum and began a free-fall that ended with his departure from the race Sunday.

Assuming Perry participates in the majority (or all) of the five scheduled debates, the dynamic between he, Romney and Bachmann will be intriguing to watch.

Romney has skated above the partisan fray so far; last Thursday he watched as Pawlenty and Bachmann exchanged blows in the Ames debate.

But Perry’s candidacy is designed to provide an electable conservative alternative to Romney, and so he’ll need to start highlighting contrasts between his record in Texas and Romney’s in Massachusetts.

Of course, Bachmann is the more immediate threat to Perry’s rise, given her pole position in Iowa. So perhaps he chooses to take her on first, before turning his attention to Romney.

It’s a game of three-dimensional chess with potentially lasting implications in the race to come. And it will all happen over the next 60 (or so) days.

Obamacare unpopular in Iowa: Republicans at this weekend’s Ames straw poll said repeatedly that the path to unseating President Obama begins in Iowa, and new polling from a GOP-aligned group suggests Obama’s health-care bill may assist that effort.

The Tarrance Group poll, conducted for the conservative group American Action Network, shows just 35 percent of Iowans support the bill, while 56 percent oppose it. And seniors are only slightly more approving.

Perhaps most striking: Just 27 percent of independent voters support the bill, while 65 percent oppose it. That suggests the GOP could win the middle by making an issue of the legislation.

The poll also shows voters are hungry for Medicare reform. Fifty-eight percent say changes need to be made to make the program sustainable — a key plank in the GOP budget platform — while 75 percent say at least modest changes need to be made (33 percent call for “major changes”).

Just exactly what changes are needed is another matter. The poll tests several of the Democrats’ proposals, finding many of them broadly unpopular, including making changes to the Medicare Part D legislation passed by a GOP Congress several years ago.

A few caveats: numbers on the GOP’s proposals were not included. The Republican plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program has also polled poorly — a reflection that the devil is in the details on the issue of entitlement reform. Even as people say they want changes, most proposals have fallen flat in the court of public opinion.

Also remember that this is a GOP poll. Results released last week showed 52 percent of Iowa voters disapprove of the president’s job performance.

Liberal group targets Romney’s “corporations are people” remark: The liberal group People for the American Way is set to buy time in New Hampshire targeting Mitt Romney for his remark last week that “corporations are people.”

Democrats seized on the remark instantly, believing it makes the former Massachusetts governor look like he’s on the side of corporations rather than regular Americans.

The spot features video of Romney jousting with a heckler at the Iowa State Fair and noting that CEO pay has reached new highs in recent years. The spot notes Romney’s contributions from corporate leaders, calling him a “man of the corporations.”

There is no word yet on how much the group will spend on the ad.

Fixbits:

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will endorse former Obama administration official and Iraq veteran Tammy Duckworth for the newly created Illinois 8th district seat Monday. Duckworth faces businessman Raja Krishnamoorthi in the Democratic primary for the Democratic-leaning seat.

Obama hits a new low in the Gallup daily tracking poll (which is generally more reliable when multiple days are averaged out) — below 40 percent.

Perry makes a play for Pawlenty supporters.

Perry has been one of Obama’s chief opponents on education.

The local Republican Party in Waterloo, Iowa, says Bachmann’s campaign proposed that it would only appear at an event there Sunday if she won the Ames straw poll. Bachmann’s campaign denies this.

Bachmann says she doesn’t “judge” gays.

Another sign of the decline of the Southern Democrat: it is no longer a majority of the vote in Louisiana.

California Republicans may move to get a referendum on the ballot that would invalidate the redistricting maps that are set to be passed by the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Commission, and send the drawing of the maps to the courts. The GOP is worse off under the new maps than in the current setup.

Bachmann further clarifies her “submit to your husband” remark, saying submission doesn’t mean being subservient.

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) continues his verbal attacks on fellow South Florida congresswoman and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, saying she’s “not smart.”

Todd Palin defends his wife against charges that she sold out Alaska.

Must-reads:

Bank that has state pension fund donates to Cantor after wife named chair of pension system” — Anita Kumar, Washington Post

Iowa forges new star in Michele Bachmann” — Ben Smith, Politico

The flavor du jour of U.S. politics” — Albert R. Hunt, Bloomberg

Read more on PostPolitics.com

Snap! Ames puts GOP presidential race into sharp focus

Bachmann wins Iowa straw poll as Perry jumps in

What went wrong for Pawlenty

 
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