The Washington Post

Tonight’s GOP debate: Who makes the next mistake?

  Question One for tonight’s encounter on CNN will be whether anyone goes after Newt Gingrich. He is sort of, kind of the front-runner, having displaced Herman Cain who displaced Rick Perry as the right-wing alternative to Mitt Romney. Perry especially needs to push Newt back. Will it happen?

Newt has been loose and relaxed at debates because up to now, he’s had nothing to lose. (He got off a good line at St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire on Monday, tweaking those who had written him off: “I am currently not dead,” he said.) Does the pressure of rising poll ratings change his approach? If rivals go after him, how does he respond? His tactic of being nice to his primary foes has gone over well with Republican voters. Can he stick with that amiable approach if he comes under attack?

I honestly don’t see much that Cain or Perry can do, though (especially in Perry’s case) they have low expectations going for them. Somehow, Perry needs a way to lump Gingrich and the other front-runner, Mitt Romney, together as a kind of GOP establishment. He wants to become the outside insurgent. As for Cain, he needs to make himself look likeable again; for a lot of voters, particularly women, he lost his amiability asset during the controversy over the sexual harassment charges.

And a hunch on Romney: He will do something to make himself look properly right-wing. Nothing extreme, just a signal. There is a bloc of at least 50 percent of Republican primary voters who keep moving around among Perry, Cain, Gingrich and Michele Bachmann because they can’t get to Romney. If Romney can pick up just a share of the vote at the right end of the Republican electorate, he could transform his front-runner status among pundits into something more like the real thing.

I am still waiting for Rick Santorum’s moment. He’s done quite well in these debates but can’t seem to get traction. Like Perry, he needs Newt to make a mistake. My hunch is that there will be lots of fire between Santorum and libertarian Ron Paul. Santorum is the purest neo-conservative on-stage, Paul the staunchest anti-interventionist. Their clashes could be intellectually interesting, which is not something one can say about most of the exchanges in these debates up to now.


Finally, there is Jon Huntsman. At this point, he should not be in the last paragraph of a piece such as this. He should have found an audience by now. If our former ambassador to China can’t make something out of a debate theoretically focused on foreign policy, what chance does he have?

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”


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