What To Look For In Tonight's GOP Debate

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The late, great Curtis Wilkie, former national political correspondent for The Boston Globe, once said that the only good thing that could come out of a debate was a “mistake.” When asked why, he said: “cuz then we’ll all have something to write about.”

Tonight’s debate in New Hampshire will be long forgotten by the time Granite Staters go to the polls next February, but it’s a big night nonetheless for the six men and one woman who will participate this evening. Here’s a breakdown of what each of the seven GOP presidential candidates will be trying to accomplish tonight:

  • Romney. His job is to keep the focus on President Obama.  For the moment, Republican activists can’t really imagine anyone other than Romney defeating President Obama next November.  Romney’s job is to keep them focused on that, by banging away on the Administration’s shortcomings and by promising relief come November of next year.  If GOP primary voters think of Mitt Romney as an Obama-beater, they think warm and fuzzy thoughts. If they think of Mr. Romney as Mr. Mormon “individual mandate” Massachusetts, they get all grumpy and hostile.
  • Pawlenty. His advisors are “tipping” that he will go after Mr. Romney on Romneycare, the Massachusetts health care insurance program that prefaced “Obamacare.”  But the smarter move for Pawlenty is to join Mr. Romney in some robust Obama-bashing.  He should leave the Romney-bashing to the lesser lights and stay above the fray.  That will make him look “bigger,” which is a good idea, since perceptually he still “feels” like a second-stringer.
  • Gingrich. He no longer has any advisors.  They all quit. That’s probably a good thing, by the way. The key for him is to somehow convincingly argue that he’s still capable of winning the nomination.  The best way to do that is to hammer home the unique selling principle of his candidacy.  Which is: of all the GOP presidential candidates running for the 2012 GOP nomination, only one person has ever moved the dial in a conservative direction while serving in public office.  And that one person is Newt Gingrich. He did that when he was Speaker of the House during the 104th Congress. And he did it against all odds.
  • Ron Paul. His job is to position himself as the GOP’s leading advocate for a much-reduced US military presence around the world. This is a wildly popular position amongst GOP primary voters and caucus attenders.  Mr. Paul, whose last debate performance was disastrous, needs to stay focused on it tonight.  It’s fertile ground for expanding the libertarian base of his candidacy.
  • Michele Bachmann.  She needs to articulate the elevator pitch for her candidacy. It should include some kind of “jump start” for the economy and a strong conservative stance on cultural issues. She needs to exhort the conservative base to action and begin to position herself as their champion.
  • Rick Santorum. He has to improve markedly on his poor performance in South Carolina.  His task is identical to Bachmann’s (directly above), but he needs to leaven it with some self-deprecating humour.
  • Herman Cain.  Keep stroking all of the Tea Party’s politically erogenous zones.  Keep drawing the contrast between the “traditional” political model and his “Tea Party” type of politics. Traditional politics has failed at every level of governance, he can say with 100% accuracy.  Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?  Why not do something different and get with the Hermanator?

The debate will begin aired on CNN tonight from 8pm to 10pm eastern time.

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