I confess I have missed them. The squabbling. The non sequiturs. The booing and the headache-inducing graphics. Yes, it’s been too long since the last Republican presidential candidates debate.
Much has changed. We won’t have Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to mix it up with Newt Gingrich. (And Mitt Romney won’t have her to provide welcome interference when the others begin pummeling him.) Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a shadow of his former political self. (If they use polls to determine placement on the stage he may be put in Vermont. He currently is polling under 1 percent in New Hampshire.) And Rick Santorum will have no problem getting all the questions he can handle.
At this point we know the participants like members of the family, having seen them play and replay the same arguments time and again. You can almost recite their sound bites for them. So what does each contender need to do in the back-to-back debates on Saturday and Sunday?
As in the previous debates, Romney must rise above the fray, projecting confidence but not cockiness and a command of the facts and himself. He wants no gotcha sound bites and no hollering matches with his competitors. He wants a boring debate in which Santorum gets a bunch of hard questions and people ask themselves, “Is Jon Huntsman in this thing?” He should remind voters of his very conservative spending and entitlement reform plans.
The stakes are high for Santorum.He’s going to be aggressively questioned on his positions, his record and his electability. He must resist the urge to say, “And when I was in the Senate . . . .” more than a couple of times. He needs some Reaganesque “There he goes again” moments in which he defuses the notion he’s a finger-wagging, wacky Christian zealot and demonstrates some largeness of spirit. When necessary, he should concede the obvious. (“Sure I worked for corporations after I left the Senate.”) But he should be firm about what he did and didn’t do, and reassure conservatives that in whatever venue he worked he stayed true to conservative principles. He would do well to have some of those ”I’ve got five ways to increase jobs” rubrics so he can briskly tick off the spending cut, tax reform, entitlement redesign and regulatory proposals he favors. And finally he should enjoy himself. Voters don’t like grumpy scolds, and he can, in part, set himself apart from the surly (Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman), the strange (Ron Paul) and the sometimes robotic (Romney) contenders by talking about his background, his family and his unbelievable good fortune as a grandson of a miner standing on a presidential debate stage. He should show some heart and some humor.
Ron Paul simply has to remind his followers that he’s there and that no one has as deep a commitment to eviscerating the federal government as he. If he wants to keep himself in double digits, he would do well to lay off the “Iran needs a bomb” nonsense and to firmly repudiate the language in his newsletters. To maximize his votes and keep Gingrich and Perry at bay, he’ll want to hammer the crony capitalism theme very hard.
Gingrich should do what it takes (a glass of wine? hand signals from Callista?) to avoid seeming crazed and angry. If he shows personal pique toward Romney, he will accelerate his decline and only enhance Romney’s standing. He’d do well to argue less with the moderator and talk more about his own policies and positive message, which have been entirely subsumed in the last few weeks.
Perry needs to avoid irrelevance. He can’t have a brain freeze or a goofy moment. It’s time to reintroduce himself as conservative governor with a strong economic record. And he’s got a strong tax and entitlement reform plan to talk about, something he too rarely does. If he’d like to knock Ron Paul down a bit, he can borrow a page from Santorum’s book and hit him hard on national security. The president has rolled out a plan to decimate the defense budget and Perry should blast him, and Ron Paul, for neglecting the primary obligation of the president, namely to keep Americans safe.
Finally, Huntsman is on his last legs. Listing along in single digits in his must-win state he may become the Michele Bachmann of New Hampshire. If he wants to climb out of the basement, he’d do wise to stop insulting conservatives, cut out the unfunny jokes and talk about his very solid tax reform plan. If he wants to throw a monkey wrench into Ron Paul’s game plan, he should challenge him to renounce a potential third-party run. Ron Paul’s reaction should be entertaining.