How flurry of de­bates shaped Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial race

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Rick San­to­rum said Sun­day that he wants to go head-to-head in a de­bate with Mitt Rom­ney be­fore the pri­mary sea­son is over — rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of one last show­down at some point.

“I ac­cept,” Mr. San­to­rum told Jonathan Karl on ABC’S “This Week,” when asked to de­bate Mr. Rom­ney. “See if Gov. Rom­ney is will­ing to come out. He’s been turn­ing down ev­ery sin­gle de­bate. He’s hid­ing be­hind the bil­lion­aires who are fund­ing his su­per PAC and spend­ing out­ra­geous amounts of money, all run­ning neg­a­tive ads.”

Mr. Rom­ney’s cam­paign didn’t

respond to a re­quest for com­ment, but has soured on de­bates in re­cent weeks. He prefers in­stead to fight it out on the air­waves and through ral­lies and hand­shakes with vot­ers in up­com­ing pri­mary states.

The final sched­uled de­bate of the cam­paign sea­son was sup­posed to take place Mon­day in Ore­gon, but first Mr. Rom­ney and then Mr. San­to­rum dropped out, caus­ing or­ga­niz­ers, in­clud­ing The Washington Times, to nix the af­fair rather than have just Newt Gin­grich and Rep. Ron Paul face off.

“It was re­ally Rom­ney and San­to­rum, and their strat­egy has re­ally shifted from a na­tional au­di­ence to very much state-by-state,” said Allen Al­ley, chair­man of the Ore­gon Re­pub­li­can Party.

The last three de­bates sched­uled this year were can­celed, leav­ing the to­tal held at an even 20 — leav­ing be­hind a legacy that wasn’t en­tirely pos­i­tive.

“There were too many de­bates that be­came repet­i­tive with only a few of them hav­ing real fire­works among the can­di­dates,” said Ron Bon­jean, a Re­pub­li­can strate­gist and co-founder of Singer Bon­jean Strate­gies. “The de­bates helped to sort out the GOP field, but failed to cre­ate a con­sen­sus can­di­date that our party des­per­ately needs to rally around and or­ga­nize for Novem­ber.”

Most agreed that the de­bates boosted Mr. Gin­grich’s cam­paign well be­yond the sta­tus his money and or­ga­ni­za­tion earned, and could have been the key to his vic­tory in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 pri­mary. That con­test fol­lowed two de­bates in which the for­mer House speaker turned the me­dia ques­tion­ers into punching bags, mak­ing them live tar­gets for his anti-elitism at­tacks.

The de­bates also helped boost Her­man Cain, whose charm be­fore the cam­eras made him a fa­vorite of the GOP de­bate au­di­ences. His per­for­mances, and the ap­peal of his 9-9-9 tax plan, pushed him briefly into the lead in Iowa late last year be­fore ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment de­railed his cam­paign.

Even be­fore that, though, the de­bates served to win­now the field, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s dis­mal per­for­mances putting the brakes on the ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­men­tum he car­ried into the race when he of­fi­cially an­nounced his can­di­dacy in Au­gust.

Along the way, the af­fairs be­came must-watch po­lit­i­cal the­ater and helped shape what has been a con­tentious and con­fus­ing pri­mary sea­son.

ABC’S prime-time de­bate in Iowa on Dec. 10 drew the best rat­ings of the sea­son, with 7.6 mil­lion view­ers tun­ing in.

One of the chief mo­ments of that de­bate came when Mr. Perry was at­tack­ing Mr. Rom­ney’s record on health care. Mr. Rom­ney of­fered a $10,000 bet to set­tle who was right. Mr. Perry de­clined, but pun­dits said the line re­in­forced the story line that Mr. Rom­ney is out of touch with reg­u­lar vot­ers.

Jim Man­ley, a Demo­cratic strate­gist and long­time aide to Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy, said the de­bates ended up show­ing the en­tire party to be out of touch as the can­di­dates fought to outdo one an­other by op­pos­ing le­gal sta­tus for il­le­gal im­mi­grants and, more re­cently, blast­ing Pres­i­dent Obama’s move to re­quire most health in­sur­ance plans to cover con­tra­cep­tion.

“A cou­ple months ago, I was pretty down on our chances in light of the cur­rent state of the econ­omy, con­sumer con­fi­dence, etc.,” Mr. Man­ley said.

“Once I had a chance to fo­cus in on the de­bates, I be­gan to re­al­ize you’ve got to win with some­body, and these guys have no­body — which is, in part, why I think Pres­i­dent Obama’s go­ing to be re-elected in Novem­ber,” he said.

All told, 10 can­di­dates took part in the de­bates — though for­mer New Mex­ico Gov. Gary E. John­son was al­lowed on stage for just two of them.

Rep. Thad­deus G. Mc­cot­ter of Michi­gan and sev­eral other can­di­dates who sought in­clu­sion were not in­vited to any of the af­fairs.

South Carolina, Florida and New Hamp­shire each hosted four de­bates, and Iowa hosted three. The oth­ers were held in Michi­gan, Ne­vada, Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona and the Dis­trict of Columbia.

“It sure was a vet­ting process,” said Mr. Al­ley, the Ore­gon GOP chair­man. “From that stand­point, the de­bates served their pur­pose. It was a vet­ting process. It cer­tainly raised the name recog­ni­tion of all of those can­di­dates, with­out them hav­ing to spend the na­tional money it would take to do that.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Ron Paul, of Texas, go head to head dur­ing the Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial de­bate at Oak­land Univer­sity in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Nov. 9. For­mer New Mex­ico Gov. Gary John­son (left) got in­vi­ta­tions to par­tic­i­pate in two of the de­bates for Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

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