LAS VEGAS — After five debates in six weeks, the race for the Republican presidential nomination will soon shift to a new phase, one focused on states with early primaries and caucuses and dominated by retail campaign skills and television commercials rather than by prepared sound bites and testy exchanges on a debate stage.
Debates have shaped the Republican race, perhaps as never before in a nomination battle. But after all the debates, the race now stands almost exactly where it was when these forums began, with the party’s rank and file trying to decide whether it can learn to love former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney while wondering if a more appealing Mr. or Ms. Right will appear to challenge him.
Not that nothing has changed since Labor Day, when this round of forums began. That was evident in the opening minutes of Tuesday’s debate near the strip in Las Vegas. Businessman Herman Cain, whose rise has been one of the big surprises of the year, came under sharp attack for his 9-9-9 tax plan. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose decline has matched Cain’s rise, came out swinging — at Cain and even more at Romney, the man he sees as his real rival.
Tuesday’s debate turned into a rolling brawl, as personal as it was pointed. It was as if all seven candidates assembled on a stage could sense a new phase in their contest coming and were rushing to make up for lost time and missed opportunities before the scene shifts. It was a fitting conclusion to one of the most intense periods of televised debating in any presidential race in memory.
The debates both changed and solidified the nature of the race. Romney has been the steady candidate whose debate performances have been the most consistent. His calling card is the argument that in a race against President Obama next year, he would have the best chance of winning.
Around him, the field has been a jumble of changing fortunes and surprise shifts. First it was Michele Bachmann who showed promise. Then Perry, then Cain. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich thinks he might be the next to see a boost in his support.
Those shifts illustrate a hesitancy on the part of conservative Republicans, particularly those in the tea party movement, to embrace Romney as well as a lack of consensus on whether there is a better, stronger candidate for the general election.
If Perry showed that he sees Romney as the candidate to beat, Romney demonstrated that he sees the Texan as his biggest threat. Though Cain was pummeled over the details of his tax plan, the pointed exchanges between Romney and Perry signaled where many Republican strategists believe the race is heading: a showdown between the two men.
That was the assumption in August when Perry jumped into the race and surged to the top of the field. But after several poor debate appearances, there were questions among Republicans about whether he was a spent force, a candidate who was ill-prepared for the competition of a national campaign. Romney’s campaign has never wavered. Throughout the fall, his advisers have aimed their barbs at Perry, and more are coming.
Perry’s aggressiveness on Tuesday was a sign of things to come. His advisers said recently they anticipate that his first rounds of ads will be positive, aimed at introducing the governor and his record to an electorate that knows little about him. But there is no doubt that, given the record of his past campaigns, attacks will follow.
Perry advisers believe deeply in their ability to shape a race with TV commercials. They’ve proved that in Texas, but against competition unlike that which Perry now faces.
He needed to show something in Tuesday’s debate to turn around the narrative of a campaign in a tailspin — and it’s likely that he accomplished that much. But did he overplay his hand with the relentlessness of his attacks on Romney Tuesday night?
Perry has more resources than anyone in the race other than Romney. He is the only candidate who might have the capacity to wage a battle through all the early states and beyond.
Perry’s team never made any secret that debates were not his favorite campaign forum, and they have been candid in acknowledging that his early debates were weaker than they had hoped. But they have considerable confidence that when it comes to face-to-face campaigning, he has skills that Romney doesn’t have.
But Perry is still new to presidential politics, in contrast with Romney, whose 2008 campaign taught him many lessons that he has put into place in this contest. Whether Perry’s personal skills as a candidate can overcome Romney’s experience and discipline will be one of the deciding factors in the coming months.
What no one can predict at this point is the trajectory of Cain’s candidacy. His personality remains his strongest asset. His tax plan helped attract early attention. But that plan is now under assault, and he will have to have a better answer for his critics than saying they don’t understand the proposal.
Debates are important, but so are the other elements of presidential campaigns. And those will be on display more now. Romney remains in a strong position, but the fact that a considerable share of the GOP electorate isn’t ready to vote for him keeps this contest alive and volatile as the next phase begins.