Debates have major impact on GOP presidential race

Published 11:54 am Tuesday, January 24, 2012

NEW YORK — The Republican presidential debates have served up riveting television and exposed the contenders’ strengths and weaknesses, with no one benefiting more than Newt Gingrich. His in-your-face style has excited GOP voters who want a scrappy fighter to take on President Barack Obama in the fall.

At the same time, no one has found himself more boxed in by the format than Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor’s cautious but generally mistake-free performances earlier in the contest were seen as evidence of his resilience. But that steadiness recently has given way to a string of awkward gaffes and unforced errors, mostly surrounding his income taxes and the vast wealth he earned running a venture capital firm.

Gingrich, Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were set to square off twice this week before Florida Republicans have their say in the primary Jan. 31. Debates were scheduled for Monday night in Tampa, and Thursday night in Jacksonville.

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Romney’s advisers at one point signaled that he might skip both Florida debates. His campaign has recruited Brett O’Donnell, a former debate coach to 2008 Republican nominee John McCain, to help him prepare. Since losing South Carolina’s primary to Gingrich on Saturday, Romney has ratcheted up his criticism of Gingrich, all but promising feistier debate performances from him this week.

The debates — 17 so far — have offered political junkies a dose of “must-see” TV and exposed the candidates’ warts and all.

Ask Herman Cain, a former pizza executive with no political experience who bounced briefly to the top of the field after several witty and memorable debate performances. Or Rick Perry, who saw his once promising candidacy unravel on stage as he stammered to recall the third of three federal agencies he’d eliminate and ended with a memorable “oops.”

The debates also have influenced media coverage of the race. An analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the tone of coverage of a candidate almost directly corresponded with the assessment of their debate performances. The center also studied Twitter postings around the debates, and found an extraordinary amount of instant debate commentary reverberating through that platform.

The debates have cast a particularly sharp focus on the Republican field, in part because there is no primary on the Democratic side. In the 2008 presidential race, there were 26 debates in which Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and other candidates mixed it up in memorable fashion.

The debates have been particularly important to residents of early voting states, which saw a flood of TV advertising from the campaigns and independent groups but much less face-to-face campaigning from candidates than in years past.

Data bears that out.

In New Hampshire, which held the nation’s first primary Jan. 10, 84 percent of those surveyed said the debates were important to their vote, according to exit polls sponsored by The Associated Press and the broadcast networks.

In South Carolina, 65 percent said the debates were important in determining their vote. Among the most conservative voters, including evangelical Christians and tea party backers, the figure was closer to 70 percent.

That group of voters backed Gingrich in Saturday’s primary in the strongest numbers, in part because of two memorable debate exchanges.

At a CNN debate last Thursday in Charleston, moderator John King asked Gingrich to comment on an interview his former wife had given to ABC News alleging that he had asked her for an open marriage. Gingrich let loose, channeling conservative rage at the “elite media.”

“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 snarled at King. The audience roared its approval.

At an earlier Fox News Channel debate in Myrtle Beach, Gingrich rebuffed a question from panelist Juan Williams on whether black voters might be insulted by Gingrich’s frequent references to Obama as the “food stamp” president. Obama is the nation’s first black president; Williams is also black.

“The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable,” Gingrich said, adding: “If that makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job.”

The reaction in the audience was so positive that Gingrich’s campaign produced a television ad drawing from the exchange.

Gingrich even spoke of his own debating skills at his South Carolina victory party.

“It’s not that I am a good debater,” he said. “It is that I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people.”

While Gingrich’s strong debate performances have temporarily deflected questions about his history and character, few expect that to last. Gilbert Cranberg, an emeritus professor of mass communications at the University of Iowa, said good debaters don’t necessarily make good presidents.

“You want a president to be deliberative, to consult, not to make snap judgments,” Cranberg said. “Debates are showbiz.”