Tonight’s Fox News Republican presidential candidate debate, the first held in Iowa, comes at a critical time in the race, as many of the announced candidates are facing existential questions, divergent strategic paths, challenging fundraising efforts, and high political stakes, and at least one likely major entrant appears ready to announce.
The pressure has been building in the Republican primary since the last debate on CNN in New Hampshire nearly two months ago.
Tonight, each candidate has their own opportunity to seize (in order of the stakes):
- Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN): The narrative around Pawlenty presently is that he could be out after Ames with a poor showing. His own “Minnesota nice” persona was on display at the last debate when he showed weak instincts on Romney and health care. Tonight he’ll be given ample opportunity to criticize Romney directly, on the stage near him. Will he do it? Will it seem sincere? Will he seem desperate? More immediately, Pawlenty has Bachmann as his primary threat in Iowa. Tonight he needs to create contrasts with her in a way that is not so harsh that it turns off female primary voters.
- Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN): Iowa frontrunner Bachmann is on the cover of the most recent Newsweek, but has been under attack on a range of issues since entering the race. She clearly has significant base support and performed very well at the last debate. Will she be substantive tonight? Will she have to answer for some past questionable statements? How does she respond to attacks, made most effectively by Pawlenty to date, on have a “nonexistent” record in Congress? Can she effectively explain how she could oppose ANY effort to raise the debt limit?
- Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA): After temporarily entering the “Mittness Protection Plan,” as Politico coined it, Romney is re-emerging. He will likely be taking the most rhetorical fire tonight as currently he is the frontrunner and is not personally well liked by the rest of the field. He will have to explain why he was so quiet during the debt deal, as well as be prepared to again differentiate between Obamacare and Romneycare. His presence in the last televised debate was the most presidential, but he was not under attack. Will his steadiness and stature be different tonight under withering attack?
- Businessman Herman Cain: Cain was the flavor of the month early in the race, attracting over 12,000 people to his announcement in Atlanta May 21. Since then, Bachmann stole all the oxygen from him and, I suspect, his fundraising has stalled just as quickly as his media attention has. Tonight, he needs a strong performance, where he clearly addresses the weak economy and debt crisis, and where he does not create new controversies, as he did on Muslims in his cabinet at the last debate. If Bachmann falters, Cain could benefit.
- Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA): Santorum believed he could ride social conservatives to an Iowa Caucus win and then potentially the nomination. The dream has died, primarily because of other stronger candidates who have entered. Santorum has been the most direct in attacking other candidates and tonight he will bring the fire power, as he has reached a desperate stage in his campaign.
- Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX): Paul could potentially win the Ames Straw Poll, giving him a major boost of media attention. He will need to explain what he would do to fix the debt crisis, specifically, and be careful not to create a controversial moment that prevents him from a strong Ames showing.
- Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA): Gingrich cannot win the nomination and by now even he knows that. For him, tonight’s debate presents an opportunity to make serious points and then be forgotten again.
- Former Ambassador and Governor Jon Huntsman (R-UT): Tonight is Huntsman’s first debate performance and he has said he will not compete in the Iowa Caucuses. His campaign has not gained traction nationally or in the early states, and they recently had two high profile departures, one of which was painstakingly reported by Politico. Tonight he must attack Romney directly, appear presidential and position himself as a conservative, to gain any sense of positive momentum.
The candidate casting the widest shadow on the field is Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), who will likely be mentioned tonight, either by the questioners or by the candidates, and who will take major steps toward an announcement this weekend when he visits the three early states.
The next debate, occurring the second week of September, will include Perry, and likely not include several of tonight’s participants.
Matt Mackowiak is a Washington and Austin-based Republican consultant and president of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC. He has been an adviser to two U.S. senators and one governor, and has worked on two winning campaigns.