With Jon Huntsman joining Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty on the sidelines of the Republican presidential race, the stage at tonight’s FOX News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina will be a bit less crowded than the previous episodes of America’s favorite political reality show. That may allow the moderators to ask more questions but it will raise the stakes for the five men still left standing. With polls showing Mitt Romney’s lead growing in both South Carolina as well as nationally, this debate and the one on CNN on Thursday will provide his opponents with what may well be their last meaningful chances to alter the outcome of the race.
That means Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry are probably going to be aiming most of their fire at the frontrunner rather than each other. But unlike the attacks on Gingrich’s records that seemed to derail his campaign in Iowa, the attempt by the former speaker and the Texas governor to blast Romney’s business record from a left-wing perspective seems to have backfired. Though there are other avenues of attack, it remains to been seen whether anything they can say in these last five days can alter the course of a primary that may anoint Romney as the inevitable nominee.
The other point that bears watching is whether this right-wing trio will give up on Romney and instead take shots at each other. The fact remains that Romney’s strength is in large measure the function of a divided conservative field. Had any two of the three withdrawn after Iowa or even New Hampshire that might have given the survivor an even chance to defeat Romney. But with Gingrich and Santorum scrapping over the conservative vote and Perry hanging on in last place, the odds of any one of them finishing first in South Carolina are slim.
After South Carolina, it is likely that the GOP lineup will again be pruned. While Ron Paul can be counted on to make his extremist case and largely dismiss or ignore his opponents, Gingrich, Santorum and Perry must choose whether to fire on each other or on Romney. But with the frontrunner already focused on Barack Obama and the November election, tonight’s show is one of the last chances the others have to make their cases.