Yes, all these debates can be tiresome.
But in fact they are doing their job of familiarizing voters with the different candidates. While no debate format can ever be perfect, the various debates thus far have allowed the national audience of Republicans to size up the cast and start making decisions.
My friend Quin Hillyer says this morning that debates don’t matter, and I would have to disagree — if by “matter” we’re talking about helping Candidate A over Candidate B.
I don’t think at this point there’s much point in denying that these debates have helped Newt Gingrich. But Quin is right in one sense. Just because Gingrich’s debate performances have shot him to the top of the field as voting time grows near, there is a whole lot more to winning Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina beyond that. Organizational ability and money, for starters. So while Newt is riding a wave here, there is plenty of room for surprise. Iowa is tailor-made for somebody like Ron Paul. If his Iowa supporters are as organized as Paul supporters in general are passionate for their man, he could easily upset an unorganized Gingrich or a not-popular-enough Romney or Santorum and Bachmann.
And speaking of debates, the so-called “Trump Debate” (it’s sponsored in actuality by Newsmax and ION television with production by TV professionals including an ex-CNN’er) is illustrating precisely the problem with the Paul, Romney, and Huntsman candidacies.
Mr. Paul has been unfairly excluded from a debate by the Republican Jewish Coalition. But for the Newsmax debate he is suddenly getting sniffy himself — as are Romney and Huntsman — over the choice of Donald Trump as a moderator. Yes, yes, yes, The Donald has morphed into a so-called “reality TV” star. But no one in their right mind thinks of Donald Trump as other than what he, in fact, is: a highly successful businessman and entrepreneur. Which is to say, precisely the kind of people we need more of in this country — as opposed to the jobless Obamaville occupiers. Trump has an extensive and deep record as a “job creator” — and candidates should jump at the opportunity for this.
But because both Paul and Huntsman have been criticized by Trump, they are turning tail and running. Romney is saying no, one suspects, because he is increasingly wary of sharing the stage with the better debater Gingrich. And Gingrich has nailed the point precisely: if they can’t handle Donald Trump, why in the world would anyone think they can handle Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez or al Qaeda?
Not to be forgotten is the television appearance that helped make Richard Nixon a saleable candidate in the fall of 1968 — Nixon’s appearance on the irreverent Laugh-In with Rowan and Martin. There, in the middle of a deadly serious fall campaign against Hubert Humphrey, was Richard Nixon mugging the phrase of the day: “Sock it to ME?”
Nixon had learned the importance of popular culture and television the hard way in 1960 — and he never made the mistake again. Romney, Paul, and Huntsman are illustrating with their refusals to participate that they are tone deaf to the culture — and in the television era, this would be a fatal problem for them as president.
So let’s see who shows up. Let’s see The Donald sock it to them.
And then it’s in the hands of Iowans.
For at least one night.