The Washington Post

Why are there so many presidential debates?

Republican presidential candidates former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) (L), former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and U.S Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) (R) listen as , former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (2nd from L) speaks during the Republican presidential candidates debate in Tampa, Fla. on Tuesday. (SCOTT AUDETTE/REUTERS)

In the lore of the U.S. political system, debates are among the most hallowed of rituals. From Lincoln-Douglas on, they have been the moments when voters are supposed to have an opportunity to get to know their candidates, contrast their ideas, evaluate their mettle.

But this campaign season, it might be fair to ask: Are Americans getting too much of a good thing?

By the end of the week, there will have been 19 debates among the GOP contenders for president. No other events have played so great a role in turning the party’s normally orderly process of picking a standard-bearer into a roller coaster ride.

“There’s no question that the debates have devolved into one part soap opera, one part reality TV, one part C-SPAN,” said Republican strategist Todd Harris.

Debates were the undoing of two once-promising candidates, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. They made front-runners, however briefly, of two otherwise unlikely ones, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain.

And without them, former House speaker Newt Gingrich would not have been able to resurrect his dying campaign, not once but twice.

The long season of debates has undoubtedly made the candidates familiar figures to many Americans, offering the willing viewer plenty of opportunity to absorb competing economic plans and various other positions.

One could argue that it has altered the balance of power a bit, shifting it away from the party establishment to an electorate apparently eager to engage: Ratings show the debates are drawing huge audiences.

But some worry that Republicans are putting too much emphasis on how well the candidates perform on a debating stage, something that might not matter all that much this fall.

“The general election is not going to be 17 debates. It is going to be three,” said Karl Rove, who was President George W. Bush’s top political adviser.

Gingrich has boasted that he would coerce President Obama into doing a series of unmoderated forums in the style made famous by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas during their 1858 Illinois Senate race (which, incidentally, Douglas won).

Political veterans, however, are skeptical that Obama would agree to anything like that.

In 2000, Rove said, Bush attempted to get Vice President Al Gore to add a fourth, and he proposed that it be on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“We were kidding ourselves,” Rove said. “Al Gore’s campaign stiff-armed us, and the national media yawned.”

Rove is concerned that the amount of time that candidates are spending in debates and on preparing for them has taken away from other priorities, such as deepening their messages, broadening their appeal and building their organizations.

Worse, said former representative Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), a vice president at the Aspen Institute, “people aren’t thinking about the qualities it takes to be president. They’re thinking about who can give Obama a bloody nose.”

Because debates have been so crucial, other aspects of campaigning have become less so.

Where voters in Iowa and New Hampshire were accustomed to getting to know the candidates in person, in their local diners and church basements, they saw relatively little of them this year, except on their television screens.

Romney’s 160-page economic plan made far less of an impression than Cain’s repetition of his punchy “9-9-9” sound bite.

For better or worse, the debates have become a powerful factor in the race.

Exit polls suggest that Gingrich’s performance in two debates last week was crucial in his stunning come-from-behind victory in South Carolina, which interrupted former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s glide path to the nomination.

Among South Carolina voters, Gingrich established himself as the strongest potential rival against Obama and the most credible on the economy, two attributes previously enjoyed by Romney.

During the months when the debate stage was crowded with as many as nine contenders, Romney had been able to stay above the fray. But last week, when the number was down to four, he was thrown off balance and on defense.

“He’s now in a head-to-head,” said Brett O’Donnell, who is considered one of the party’s top debate coaches and who is now offering advice to Romney. “He’s got to win the argument that he is the best person to take on Obama.”

And indeed, Monday night’s debate in Tampa saw something of a role reversal: Romney was on the attack against Gingrich, while the former speaker assumed the more subdued stance of the front-runner.

Gingrich later blamed his flat performance on the fact that the moderator, NBC News’s Brian Williams, had told the audience not to cheer.

“We’re going to serve notice on future debates that we won’t tolerate — we’re just not going to allow that to happen,” Gingrich said Tuesday on Fox News. “That’s wrong — the media doesn’t control free speech. People ought to be able to applaud if they want to. It was almost silly.”

Some predict that future presidential candidates will avoid repeating this season’s marathon of debates.

“You’ll never see this debate-itis again,” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican chairman who worked for Perry’s ill-fated campaign in that state.

Others suggest that this kind of frenzy will become the new norm.

“The ball starts rolling, and nobody wants to be the one to say, ‘I won’t participate,’ ” Edwards said.

There are other forces at work.

The debates have been a ratings bonanza for the cable networks, drawing far more viewers than they did four years ago, when Republicans held roughly the same number of forums.

But at that time, they centered far more heavily on foreign policy, where the party was playing defense on the unpopular war in Iraq.

And the cast of characters onstage — which at one point included four former governors, two sitting senators, three House members and a former New York City mayor — represented the embodiment of the GOP old guard.

This time, the field of candidates reflects the civil war between the GOP establishment and the insurgent forces of the tea party movement.

“They’re just better theater this time,” said Allan Louden, a professor of political communication at Wake Forest University.

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

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