The Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in California was scheduled months ago for next Wednesday night. But that didn’t stop the White House from deciding to have President Obama address a joint session of Congress on his economic plan on that very same night. The GOP may grumble, but White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed their complaint about the high-handed manner in which the White House relegated a much anticipated gathering of contenders to a secondary news event: “One debate of many was not reason not to have a speech when we wanted to have it.”
In a sense, Carney’s right. The Reagan Library event is just one GOP debate among many. But as the first such forum since Perry entered the Republican race, it was viewed as a chance for the country to take its first good long look at Perry in this context. It was an opportunity for Perry to make a good first impression for many viewers, but it was even more crucial for his challengers. Since Perry has vaulted to an enormous lead in the polls, the California debate was a chance for Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, the two candidates whose hopes have suffered the most since Perry’s entry, to score points at their rival’s expense. If Perry falters badly at the debate it might erase his lead as quickly as it was built. But will any of this matter if nobody is watching?
For political junkies, the only answer will be a DVR alert, because Obama’s speech is must-watch TV whether you support his policies or not. Though it is far from clear the president has any real new ideas that will justify the august setting for a routine policy speech, there’s no question Obama’s address will outdraw the GOP debate by a huge margin.
This means Perry’s debate debut will have a vastly smaller audience than originally anticipated. This may disappoint Perry’s fans, but given the fact he has a huge lead, it won’t hurt his campaign. Though it’s way too early to think about running out the clock, with a double-digit margin of error, the Perry campaign has to hope scheduling difficulties equally diminish all subsequent debates.