Republican White House hopefuls will return to the debate stage tonight at Dartmouth College, for a high-stakes presidential forum that will focus exclusively on the economic issues driving the 2012 election.
Tonight’s debate, hosted by Bloomberg and the Washington Post, will differ significantly from the past six Republican forums, in form as well as in content. Rather than standing at podiums, the candidates will be seated next to each other at a round table. Each will present his or her economic plan, and then take questions from debate moderators — led by Charlie Rose — as well as from one another.
A lot has happened since the last Republican tete-a-tete went down two weeks ago. The party has ended its will-they-won’t-they dance with other potential candidates, leaving the 2012 field set with the eight candidates who will take the stage tonight. The contest, which will force candidates to abandon hot-button social issues, has the potential to launch a new phase of the GOP primary campaign, weeding out the also-rans from a top-tier of contenders.
Here’s what to watch out for:
Is this Rick Perry’s last stand?
The stakes are undoubtedly highest for the Texas Governor, who has taken a nosedive in national polls, largely as a result of his poor debate performances. Tonight’s debate is widely seen as Perry’s last opportunity to prove he is still a contender — if he can’t capitalise on the opportunity to turn the focus back to his jobs record, his days on the campaign trail could be numbered.
The good news for Perry is that expectations couldn’t be much lower. And after largely dismissing debates as irrelevant, the Perry camp finally seems to be taking this one seriously. As other GOP hopefuls barnstormed New Hampshire yesterday, Perry stayed holed away somewhere, rehearsing his performance and drilling the issues.
Perry’s performance will largely depend on whether he can hold it together during the second hour of the debate — something he has failed to do in the last three matchups. A source close to the Perry campaign told me that, during the past debates, the governor has been in serious pain due to his recent back surgery, which is exacerbated during the debates by hours of standing. Tonight’s forum will be seated, so that will ostensibly be less of a factor.
Will Mitt Romney engage Herman Cain?
Cain’s recent surge to the top of national polls put him front and centre for tonight’s debate — literally. The former Godfather’ Pizza CEO will be seated next to Romney at centre stage, with Perry relegated to Romney’s righthand side.
The arrangement sets up a confrontation between Cain and Romney, who are currently neck-and-neck in Republican polls. But it is unclear if Romney will take the bait. So far, Romney has refrained from offering any criticism of the pizza titan, and declined to entertain direct comparisons between himself and Cain. On the campaign trail yesterday, Romney praised Cain for his private-sector experience and solid ideas.
In reality, the two candidates are running in completely different primaries. But the situation is delicate for Romney — if he comes down too hard on Cain, he will look like a bully. But not engaging Cain could come across as supercilious, and risk alienating his new cult-like following.
Can Michele Bachmann hold her own?
Struggling to stay afloat in the 2012 race, Michele Bachmann needs to show voters that she still has some relevance, even if its only to get people to remember she is still running.
Unfortunately for Bachmann, the Bloomberg debate does not play to her strong suits. Debate organisers and moderators have made it clear they want to avoid demagoguery in lieu of a measured, nuanced debate on the economy. This could be a difficult transition for Bachmann, who tends not to stray from her talking points, many of which centre around social issues.
On the flip side, if Bachmann gets down into the nitty-gritty of economic policy and offer substantive proposals, she will blow her detractors away and breathe new life into her nearly-broke campaign. So far, however, the Bachmann camp shows no sign of deviating from its current course.
Will we see another breakout performance?
The 2012 Republican debates have given the second-tier candidates an opportunity to separate themselves from the rest of the field and step into the national spotlight, however briefly.
Tonight’s debate offers an interesting opportunity for the also-ran candidates, who will each have a chance to outline their economic proposals. Moreover, the debate is being broadcast by Bloomberg, so the candidates will be under less pressure to play to the conservative base, and more free to show off their intellectual prowess. Any candidate who sounds like they can hold their own stands to benefit from a boost of media attention following the debate.
The most likely contenders here are former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, undoubtedly the most moderate candidate in the field, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has a huge brain and a lot of experience, but has so far been a non-factor in the race.
Will the candidates finally answer questions on the European debt crisis?
Until now, the 2012 Republican candidates have avoided the subject of Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, despite the fact that it is bound to be a major issue for whoever wins the Oval Office in 2012. The topic has yet to come up in the past three presidential debates, but it would be remarkably odd if it didn’t emerge during a two-hour discussion on the economy.
This is an area where viable contenders can separate themselves from the rest of the field. Although the issue is not likely to play a big role on the campaign trail, some big money donors will likely be scared off by candidates who don’t seem have a grasp on the crisis, or some idea of how to resolve it.
Who will bring up Perry’s threats to Ben Bernanke?
Questions about the role — and existence — of the Federal Reserve have already come up frequently on the campaign trail, and will likely be a flashpoint during tonight’s debate.
Criticism of the Fed has long been popular among libertarians and other small-government conservatives, but some of the 2012 GOP candidates have taken it to a whole other level. In particular, Perry’s vague threats to deliver frontier justice to Fed Chair Ben Bernanke have freaked out Republican leaders and more moderate conservatives.
Perry’s remarks are easy bait for other candidates looking to make the Texas Governor a punching bag during tonight’s debate. The question is who will bring it up first — Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman or the debate moderators?
Can Charlie Rose keep the debate from descending into madness?
Chaos has been a hallmark of the last few Republican presidential debates, with candidates devolving into sparring matches over tiny issues, like Perry’s HPV vaccine mandate, and audiences appalling viewers by cheering for things like death and execution.
Bloomberg and the Washington Post are actively trying to stop this from happening tonight. The debate format, its Ivy League setting, and the presence of Charlie Rose are clearly designed to have a tempering effect on the volatile octet. But it is unclear if even Rose can keep a lid on this bunch.
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