Tomorrow night, ABC will host another GOP presidential primary debate. It should be good. Most of these people know it is do-or-die time for their campaigns and so we should see them hold nothing back. The audience that matters are the grassroots people in Iowa and New Hampshire and the two questions are obviously:
Who can create enough momentum to take the lead in (1.) Iowa and (2.) New Hampshire?
While eyes are always on Romney, his support is stagnant. He'll perform well, but if anyone does as well or better, they'll be seen as winning. So little actual attention should be given to Romney as it is up to Huntsman, Perry and Gingrich to outperform him. At this point, Romney is a man with little control over his own fate.
The Winner will look like this. . .
The Republican base still searches for the perfect candidate that can speak the language of the base and the language of reason. I have yet to see a candidate that can show me why or why not a marriage amendment can pass or how we take the abortion issue away from the jurisdiction of nine Americans while also telling me how he will you fix our credit rating or help Europe back on its feet, or why we should or should not be supporting the Federal Reserve's policy of Quantitative Easing? Why should we oppose climate change legislation -- is it because global warming isn't happening or because it will hurt the economy?
If anyone can feed us more than talking points, we will be behind that candidate. After twenty years of Clinton/Bush/Obama, we need serious solutions. Who will be that guy?
Iowa will be watching Gingrich and Perry.
Newt Gingrich. Newt is leading in Iowa and leading big. But how long can someone with his resume hold on? If history is any indication, not long. Newt can best be described by his political persona. Adulterer. Rich. Lobbyist. Hypocrite. Petty. Opportunist. Against the Ryan tax plan. Weak on stem cell research. Supporter of a healthcare mandate. And now comes the news that he almost went along with Bush I's tax increase. This is the guy that is going to win Iowa? I'm not so sure.
Newt has never been known as a hero to social conservatives. The Evangelical republican caucus goers in Iowa will be looking for someone who represents their point of view, not someone who embarrasses their point of view. Newt has a difficult path to victory but he can do himself a favor by throwing out red meat to the socially conservative wing of the republican party tomorrow night. (Hint: We'd love to hear how you plan to reduce abortions). Proving his social conservative credentials is his only path to victory in Iowa. The debate gives him a shot to do it.
All in all, a lot of things have to go right for him to keep this up but much of this comes down to Newt. How will he handle questions on his record tomorrow night? Will he satisfy voters when confronted with his own support for the individual mandate? Will he be able to fight off the attacks from Romney on the left and Perry on the right? Will he continue to come off as an arrogant frontrunner? How will he not look out-of-touch? These are questions Newt needs to answer tomorrow, if he can he may have a chance of solidifying this thing.
Rick Perry. A lot of people want to count Rick Perry out. He is down in the polls and even the casual observer has seen his debate gaffe. But the smart money is on the other factors. Perry has increased his polling in Iowa to double digits, he'll be spending a million and a half dollars per week in Iowa saturating all three markets with ads and he is in the midst of a 42 city swing through Iowa. As Mitt and Newt duke it out, Perry goes unscathed. He fits the bill of former Iowa winners better than any other candidate currently polling in double digits. He has the get-out-the-vote machine, the money and the support of Super PAC's to make this happen.
A stellar debate performance will instantly bump him ten points up, placing him ahead of Paul and Romney in Iowa. Those ten points by the way, will come from Gingrich who is flying high with 30% support in Iowa, something that doesn't seem likely to last as Romney hits him on every issue imaginable. If Perry steals half of Gingrich's support on the way down, he is now in a commanding first place. Furthermore, voters want to vote for Perry, they are just waiting for a reason to do so. If Perry can look into the camera and articulate strong conservative ideas tomorrow, the cable chatter will be all about Perry and his numbers are going to reflect it.
Abraham Lincoln stated that if you gave him four hours to chop down a tree, he would spend the first three sharpening his axe. Perry may be down, but he is putting in the footwork, tv time and get out the vote effort to pull this off at the last minute. Unlike any other candidate, Perry has more say over whether his campaign will shoot back to the top or continue to disappoint. Tomorrow night, Perry can make this all about him -- it is his choice.
New Hampshire will be watching.
Jon Huntsman may still be the dark horse in this race. No one in the base is falling over themselves to vote for him, but if he holds up and continues to slowly rise, he may be the last acceptable guy standing. He doesn't need to win Iowa. But it would help if he could come in third of fourth. A strong showing there would give him the momentum he needs going into New Hampshire.
If Newt slips, as he likely will, there is a lot of support up for grabs. RCP has Romney with 36% support in NH, Gingrich with 24%, Paul with 16% and Huntsman with almost 10%. If Huntsman can pick off half of Gingrich's support, he comes in a strong second in NH. If Gingrich voters do look to flee, Huntsman would be the obvious choice to go to. Gingrich's people wouldn't go to Paul obviously, and there must be a reason why they are supporting Gingrich over Romney in the first place (Gingrich is seemingly more conservative). They are searching for a smart and consistent conservative. Huntsman is that guy.
With proportional voting in primary states until April, a third place finish in Iowa and second in New Hampshire keeps a guy like Huntsman competitive, especially when you have the record that Huntsman has combined with the media's love for the guy. Don't count this guy out.
Tomorrow night, Huntsman needs to stay on his jobs message while also doing something, anything to show Iowa voters on social issues and New Hampshire voters on fiscal issues, that he truly is a conservative. It doesn't serve him well to run from his record. He needs to give the base something to be excited about and he may find himself holding on long enough to become a competitor.
Tomorrow night will only be about the people with the money and infrastructure to win. The base is still looking for a guy to coalesce around. It could be Newt, it could be Perry, it could even be Huntsman. Look to see who remains positive while landing a few blows and deliver some conservative rationale for their position. Over 60% of republican support is soft support ready to jump on board with the winner.
Tomorrow night, a winner could be forged. I hope these three take it seriously.