Saturday’s presidential debate could be quite consequential because it’s the first to be held since Newt Gingrich’s surge to the top of the polls and it comes less than four weeks before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Politico
Mitt Romney and Gingrich will take center stage, as the campaign now looks to be a two-man race. “This is the biggest alpha dog battle of the campaign so far,” Republican strategist Alex Castellanos told Politico.
The main question for both top dogs is whether they can project a presidential air without falling prey to their major flaws. In Romney’s case, that’s getting testy when the former Massachusetts governor is tested. And in former House Speaker Gingrich’s case, that’s jumping down the throats of moderators and opponents without provocation.
Both men have proven to be the strongest two debaters. This will be the first time Gingrich can expect challenges from his opponents, as his candidacy seemed irrelevant at the time of earlier debates.
“We know the debate is Newt vs. Mitt, but [what] we don’t know is which Newt and which Mitt,” Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Politics, told Politico. “Will it be smart, scholarly Newt or bombastic and incendiary Newt? Will it be nice, cautious Mitt or nasty, desperate Mitt? That’s what’s worth tuning in for.”
Castellanos said, Romney “needs to demonstrate strength. Newt needs to continue to demonstrate strength, but he also needs to prove he is worthy of remaining the front-runner — i.e., he needs to demonstrate he is not an irritant. This is harder than it looks because he got where he is by eschewing political correctness and speaking bluntly.”
Gingrich’s strategy of attacking the moderator likely won’t get him too far in this debate. But that doesn’t mean he should turn into a shrinking violet, Castellanos said.
“Will his new advisers tell Newt to pull his punches a bit to be more ‘likable’?” he said. “If he does, my guess is he will appear phony, and being a phony pol from Washington is the end of Newt Gingrich. Will he be as strong and combative as he has been? That’s probably his best strategy and let the chips fall where they may.”
Gingrich can expect plenty of criticism from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who already have attacked him for flip-flopping. Paul even has an ad describing Gingrich as a “hypocrite.”
Gingrich has to be careful not to hit back too hard. “The poll numbers are rising, the energy is flowing — does it go to his head, or does he stay focused?” one veteran GOP strategist told Politico.
Romney, meanwhile, needs to handle Gingrich’s attacks with strength and grace, as he has in the past. “If Mitt can handle Newt in a debate again, if Mitt can alpha-dog Newt and establish that he is in fact the stronger candidate — not to compete against Obama but to solve our nation’s problems — he will jump-start his campaign again,” Castellanos said. “That’s what he needs to do. Can Mitt demonstrate strength without being small, political, puerile?”
If not, the penalty may be high. “If Newt survives this debate, then two more weeks, then Christmas freezes the race, and Newt wins Iowa,” Castellanos said. “Then Newt goes into New Hampshire with a head of steam. . . . Mitt may not get the long campaign he wants.”
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