CHARLESTON, S.C. — In the North Charleston Coliseum on Thursday evening, Romney campaign strategist Stuart Stevens contemplated an unusual strategy for coping with the seemingly endless string of GOP debates.
“I was thinking about setting myself on fire,” Stevens said after the 17th debate of the primary season, or, as he referred to it, number “like 50 million.” Stevens, who is known to rattle bottles of pain killers to emphasize the detrimental effects of debates, lamented the “Groundhog Day quality” of the events, and how much they took out of the campaigns and the candidates.
“Getting up that Saturday night, Sunday morning, that was just wrong,” he said, referring to two debates last week within 12 hours of each other. That Sunday morning debate required a 6:30 a.m. prep session in which Stevens said former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and his advisers mostly looked at one another in a hotel room. “People don’t understand how much it fatigues these candidates, how hard it is.”
“We’re tired,” Stevens said.
The 2012 GOP primary has proven to be an especially tiresome campaign season. In addition to the usual indignities of campaign life on the road (“Take your Lipitor and keep eating,” said Katon Dawson, a prominent Rick Perry booster), campaign staff members have had to plan and prepare for seemingly incessant debates. The first dozen or so of those events were crowded with peripheral candidates, some of whom, having tasted celebrity on the debate stage, seem to have had a hard time letting go.
Former GOP front-runner Herman Cain spent the week cruising the streets of Charleston in his campaign bus and announcing, “My unconventional endorsement is the people,” to sparse audiences. His former campaign manager, Mark Block, who gained some notoriety for smoking a cigarette in a campaign spot, smoked cigarettes on a Charleston sidewalk and called the race and debates “boring” since Cain departed.
But Thursday’s debate proved to be anything but. Unlike Monday’s event in Myrtle Beach, where veteran reporters muttered things such as “Here it is, big debate 436!,” the Charleston debate injected new life into a race where Romney’s South Carolina support appears to be eroding.
It’s no wonder, then, that denigrating debates has become something of a Romney campaign talking point.
“There’s a lot of them,” Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s communications director, said after debate No. 16. “It gets a little tiring.” On Thursday, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a Romney supporter, blamed fatigue for Romney’s lackluster performance Monday night, where he inserted enough couches to fill a furniture shop into an answer about whether he’d release his tax returns. “There are too many debates,” said Sununu. “And they allow candidates to stay in if they don’t have the resources as long as they have the price of a ticket to the next debate.”
“Fatigue,” he said, “is crucial.”
It is also a badge of honor. While Stevens made the requisite nod to his candidate’s boundless energy, he attributed his weariness to being part of the only operation “that is running a full-fledged campaign.” He said that while the Romney campaign staffers were working 18-hour days raising money and building an organization, the cash-strapped campaign of former speaker Newt Gingrich boiled down to debate appearances. “That is his campaign,” said Stevens. “You read his schedule, he like goes to the zoo. He went to a concert. Man, it sounds great.”
The Gingrich campaign makes no excuses for its affection for debates.
“We’d have a debate every hour if we could,” said R.C. Hammond, the spokesman for Gingrich, who has based his entire rationale for the nomination on the strength of his debate performances.