Debates have shaped wild GOP race

Wednesday night’s clash in Mesa is likely to resonate for some time, as it is the first debate in nearly four weeks and perhaps the final one of the primary season -- giving it a heightened importance for the fates of the four remaining contenders.

“It’s certainly anticipated,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center in Washington. “And it provides opportunities for just what we’ve seen, which is amazing reversals of fortune.”

CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist, whose network has produced several debates, including Wednesday’s, said the number of viewers has steadily increased since CNN’s first debate in June, and more people have watched than in past election cycles. The most recent debate, Jan. 26 in Jacksonville, drew 5.4 million viewers.

In addition, major moments are replayed time and again on cable news and the Internet -- think Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” -- and transform into defining moments for the candidates. The debates also have helped less-funded candidates from U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota to Stockbridge businessman Herman Cain gain attention.

“The money issue is always a part of it,” University of Maryland political science professor Shawn Parry-Giles said. “But really for those who had the ability to have enough money to stay in the race, then it provided them that platform.”

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich embraced the platform when his campaign was broke and left for dead last summer, as much of his senior staff quit. Gingrich’s wife, Callista, according to campaign aides, urged him to stay in the race because he would be able to shine at the debates.

“Looking at Newt specifically, given where he was in June, without the debates he wouldn’t be back in the race,” said David Winston, a longtime Gingrich ally who serves as a political consultant for his presidential bid.

The reason, Parry-Giles said, was Gingrich’s feisty style: “He went on the attack and he was very good at defining his positions on the issues in a way that was attractive to the part of the electorate that still wasn’t satisfied with [front-runner Mitt] Romney.”

The attack that earned the former congressman from Georgia the most acclaim came not against Romney, but against CNN’s John King in a Jan. 19 debate in Charleston, S.C. King, who also will moderate Wednesday’s debate, began by asking Gingrich about the story that had the political world buzzing that day: Gingrich's second wife's claim in interviews that Gingrich had wanted an open marriage.

Gingrich replied: “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. I’m appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

The boisterous crowd leaped to its feet to cheer, and the sharp reply set the tone for the debate. Gingrich went on to win the South Carolina primary two days later.

But South Carolina remains Gingrich’s only win, and a pair of weaker debates in Florida helped lead to Romney’s victory there by a wide margin. Since then, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, on the strength of victories in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, has risen to be the chief contender against Romney and currently leads in national polls.

Santorum has gone from a candidate on the fringes -- literally, as leaders in the polls are positioned in the center -- complaining about getting too little airtime, to a candidate in the spotlight. He has taken plenty of criticism but also emerged in the Jacksonville debate as a strident critic of Romney’s Massachusetts health care law.

“You are going to claim [about President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act], ‘Well, it doesn't work, and we should repeal.' And he's going to say, ‘Wait a minute, Governor, you said it works well in Massachusetts,' ” Santorum said. “Folks, we can't give this issue away in this election. It is about fundamental freedom.”

Parry-Giles said U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has acquitted himself well, too, as he has managed to come off as likable while attacking opponents by cracking jokes. But, she added, Paul's libertarian views on social issues and foreign policy have kept him from attracting much of the GOP electorate.

Romney and Santorum will be the focus Wednesday, as they are competing hard in Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona and Michigan. Super Tuesday looms as well on March 6 -- with contests in Georgia, Ohio and eight other states -- when the Gingrich campaign hopes to spring its comeback.

In Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Gingrich said this debate is no more important than previous ones, and spokesman R.C. Hammond said Gingrich’s debate prep likely will not change. Gingrich typically calls his two grandchildren -- whom he jokingly refers to as “my debate coaches” -- and drinks Diet Coke. He occasionally takes in a movie.

But Winston said all candidates, including Gingrich, study the news of the day and try to come up with counters for expected attacks from opponents.

“That is not a simple process,” Winston said. “It’s always very helpful to have someone like Newt ... who does have a significant level of experience.”

Hammond said Gingrich’s game plan is to focus on rising gas prices during the debate. Lately on the stump Gingrich has pledged to reduce the price of gas to between $2 and $2.50 per gallon through increased domestic drilling and production. Average nationwide prices recently topped $3.50 a gallon.

The moderators cram as well. Feist said there is a team of about 10 people, including King, who will come up with the questions for this debate, and CNN will also use questions from Arizona voters via social media.

Georgians will not get the same chance. A scheduled March 1 CNN debate in Atlanta was scrapped last week after Romney decided to pull out. The candidates have not committed to any more debates beyond Wednesday.

“Maybe they’re making the calculation that these haven’t helped him,” Parry-Giles said of the Romney campaign. “What it does is give a free platform to those who don’t have as much money.”

In the age of big-spending campaigns and super PACs, that’s a good thing, Feist said.

“Would you rather have the campaign play out on a debate stage where candidates offer their policy prescriptions, communicate with the viewers and the voters get a sense whether the candidate is a strong communicator?” Feist said.

“Or would you rather see the campaign play out in the form of 30-second ads, many of which are misleading? ... I think [the debate model is] better for the country and better for the voters.”

5 debate moments that helped shape the race

1. June 13, Manchester, N.H.: Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in a morning show appearance the day before, had coined “Obamneycare” to compare former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s health care plan to President Barack Obama’s. But Pawlenty wouldn’t repeat the criticism to Romney’s face. Pressed by CNN’s John King -- “If it was Obamneycare on Fox News Sunday, why is it not Obamneycare with the governor standing right there?” -- Pawlenty avoided a blunt attack on Romney, saying he was merely citing a past statement by Obama. Pawlenty dropped out of the race in August and endorsed Romney.

2. Nov. 9, Rochester, Mich.: The departments of Commerce and Education rolled off the tongue, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry could not remember the third federal agency he wanted to eliminate. After struggling for about 45 seconds, Perry delivered a line that quickly became the summation of his failed bid: “Sorry. Oops.” Perry tried to laugh it off -- appearing in the debate spin room immediately afterward and declaring “I sure stepped in it out there” -- but he was already struggling with poor debate performances, and his campaign never really recovered. Perry dropped out in January and endorsed Newt Gingrich.

3. Jan. 19, Charleston, S.C.: Once again King -- who will moderate Wednesday’s debate in Arizona -- was in the center of the action, opening the debate by asking Gingrich about his second wife's claim that Gingrich had wanted an open marriage. Gingrich took his usual attack on the media to new heights: “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. I’m appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” Gingrich got a huge ovation from the crowd, the first of many in that debate. He would go on to win the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary by a wide margin.

4. Jan. 26, Jacksonville: Gingrich’s South Carolina fire was quelled by Romney’s counterattacks in the debate during the run-up to Romney’s victory in the Florida primary. Romney took offense at the fact that Gingrich had dubbed him “anti-immigrant” in an ad: "I think you should apologize for it," Romney said. "And I think you should recognize that having differences in opinion does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets." Romney also had a deft counter when Gingrich brought up that Romney had profited from investments in government-backed mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments?" Romney asked. Gingrich stumbled through a reply in which he said his investments in Fannie and Freddie were insignificant by comparison.

5. Jan. 26, Jacksonville: The same debate also saw the early emergence of former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania as Romney’s chief foil. Santorum gave the most spirited debate denunciation yet of Romney’s health care law: “You are going to claim [about Obama’s Affordable Care Act], ‘Well, it doesn't work, and we should repeal.' And he's going to say, ‘Wait a minute, Governor, you said it works well in Massachusetts.' Folks, we can't give this issue away in this election. It is about fundamental freedom.” Santorum now leads in national polls after wins in three Feb. 7 contests.

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