Stage is set for GOP debate in New Hampshire

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent June 11, 2011

If anyone was still wondering when the slow-starting contest for the Republican presidential nomination would begin in earnest, wonder no more. The past 10 days alone have provided a summer’s worth of developments ahead of the first major debate of the year, Monday night in New Hampshire.

What’s happened? Here’s a reminder:

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

• Front-runner Mitt Romney formally launched his candidacy with a blast at President Obama’s handling of the economy and a wise decision not to compete in the Iowa straw poll. Romney won that straw poll four years ago and got caught up in what turned out to be a losing battle in the caucuses from which he never recovered. Lesson learned.

• Newt Gingrich lost his entire senior staff after a disagreement over his chosen campaign strategy. He is now the Frank Sinatra of candidates, who will be singing “My Way” (absent the opening lines) for the rest of the campaign.

• Tim Pawlenty, who has not seen his poll numbers move out of single digits but has been drawing favorable reviews from some party activists, laid out an economic plan, the most comprehensive by any candidate to date.

The Pawlenty plan, unveiled at the University of Chicago, has won praise on the right for its boldness and its reliance on tax cuts. It has been justifiably criticized elsewhere for its highly questionable ambitions (a decade of annual growth rates of 5 percent) and, in the face of big deficits, the cost of those tax cuts.

Since 1945, the percentage increase in the growth rate has hit 5 percent or more in only a dozen years. Against that history, Pawlenty’s target of growth rates that high for a decade is beyond questionable. As for the tax cuts, my colleague Ruth Marcus wrote that they could cost $2 trillion to $11.6 trillion, depending on assumptions. The former Minnesota governor will have plenty of questions to answer about this plan as the campaign progresses.

• Thousands of Sarah Palin’s e-mails from part of her tenure as governor were released, amid a predictable media scramble. The e-mails boost the focus on Palin between the first and second legs of her “One Nation” bus tour. Whether the next leg goes through the Midwest or the South, Palin is likely to be spending time in another state with an early presidential primary or caucus, as she moves closer to the moment when she will have to make a real decision about the 2012 race. That will probably be before Labor Day.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, one of the most anti-Washington governors in the country, is being urged to seriously consider acquiring a Washington address by running for president. He will do so once he finishes with a special legislative session in Austin. Meanwhile, Gingrich’s staff defections have freed up two key players from Perry’s political team. Though there is no connection between the two events, Perry will have his brain trust ready the moment he starts to really weigh his options.

The political space exists for a Perry candidacy, and he already has a small-government, 10th Amendment message that will play well among party activists. But Perry needs to be hardheaded about the realities of trying to enter at this point, given that he has no national network. He will have to decide whether he can raise enough money quickly enough to run a credible campaign (not as easy or as quick a task as many people think); whether he can put together political organizations in the early states and elsewhere; whether he commands true political support or just the vocal enthusiasm of a few; and whether he wants to put himself and his family through the scrutiny that will follow. At this point, the odds of his running, say those who know him, are at best 50-50.

• Oh, yes, there was one other event. Rick Santorum, a long shot for the nomination, formally opened his campaign Monday, only to see his announcement buried beneath the rubble left by the political collapse of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) after he confessed to sending sexually charged tweets.

Now, onto New Hampshire. Monday’s debate in Manchester, which will be hosted by CNN, WMUR-TV and the New Hampshire Union Leader, will air nationally on CNN beginning at 8 p.m. Seven candidates will be onstage: Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich, Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, and Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Ron Paul (Tex.).

This will be Romney’s first debate. It will also be Gingrich’s, whose candidacy now depends heavily on his shining in candidate forums, and Bachmann’s, whose prospective candidacy could be a force in Iowa.

Absent will be Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and Obama’s ambassador in Beijing. He is in New Hampshire, his new second home, this weekend and is on the cusp of announcing his intention to run.

Early debates are like early-season sports contests, run at not-quite-full speed with competitors at not-quite-peak performance levels. The biggest target of criticism is likely to be Obama, rather than Romney. The former Massachusetts governor may begin to feel some heat from rivals over health care, but look for him to keep his focus on the president, the economy and foreign policy.

The first debates are often more polite than confrontational. Candidates usually wait until after Labor Day for serious engagement, preferring to use these initial encounters to introduce themselves to voters and viewers who know little about them. But sometimes sparks can fly. Obama stumbled a bit in the first Democratic debate in 2007 and later caught a blast from Hillary Rodham Clinton in a midsummer forum over his willingness to talk to the leaders of hostile nations (like Iran) with no preconditions.

Romney will be the most closely watched, as Republicans — and Obama’s team — take his measure as a possible challenger to the president and activists look for the sparks of passion that could excite his party’s base. Pawlenty has as much at stake as he tries to convince primary and caucus voters that he has the best chance to defeat Obama and therefore is the most credible alternative to Romney.

Bachmann hopes to make a splash, show her tea party appeal and diminish interest in Palin. Cain, who did well in the South Carolina debate in May, hopes to keep the good reviews coming for his long-shot bid. Santorum will help lead the attack on Obama. Paul will lead the attack on some elements of GOP orthodoxy.

Republicans won the 2010 elections, but they are looking for a leader. Monday’s debate will mark the next step in the process of finding one.

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