Saturday night’s ABC News/Des Moines Register Republican presidential debate marks a crucial turning point in the long-running series of forums featuring the GOP contenders. For months, Americans have been tuning in to their favorite political reality show to chart the progress of the contenders. But this will be the first time the candidates have met since Herman Cain’s withdrawal. Jon Huntsman, who failed to get the requisite poll support to be included, will also not be present. But most of all, it will mark an important showdown between the two Republicans who appear to be the frontrunners: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
Gingrich’s improbable rise to the top of the polls — both in Iowa and nationally — has been the political story of the last few weeks. But just as important has been the decline of Romney. After months of being the default frontrunner while a number of conservatives — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Cain — had their moments before falling back, for the first time it appears that Romney’s campaign is in trouble. If he cannot slow Gingrich’s momentum, the former Massachusetts governor’s once bright chances of winning the nomination may be lost. That means he needs to come out swinging at Gingrich; so the expectation is that this debate could be an old-fashioned brawl.
Romney has less than a month to remind voters in Iowa that on many, if not most issues, he is more conservative than Gingrich, despite his reputation as a moderate flip-flopper. He’s also eager to point out to social conservative that despite their worries about his changes of position on abortion, his exemplary private and public lives provide a strong contrast to Gingrich’s scandal-plagued history. The two will be paired next to each other front and center at this debate–sparks may fly.
But while Romney may score points at Gingrich’s expense, the question has to be asked whether conservatives will care. Since so many Tea Partiers and evangelical voters consider Romney so unappealing that the competition for their votes has become a contest to see which conservative is the best “not Romney,” it remains to be seen whether any charge, no matter how true, will pop Gingrich’s bubble. The fact that Gingrich gained ground instead of losing after deviating from conservative orthodoxy on immigration in the last debate must be seen as a sign the impact of any attacksmight be minimal. (A smiliar position by Rick Perry cost him heavily.)
It will also be interesting to see whether Gingrich can stay disciplined in a debate where, for once, he, rather than Romney or one of the other candidates will be the focus of attention. Gingrich has succeeded in the debates by staying positive about his competitors, scolding the moderators and generally taking on the air of an intellectual critic of the Washington establishment to which he belongs. If Romney can goad him into the sort of gaffe for which he is famous, the former Speaker might be hurt. But if he remains the “new Newt” and stays on message, it could be a sign that Gingrich is likely to stay in front heading into the Iowa caucus.
Tune in to ABC News at 9 pm on Saturday night and then log back on to Commentarymagaizne.com as I live blog the debate and let’s see what happens.