Thanks to a Republican Party-prompted consolidation of debate events and the exit of Donald Trump from the primary scene (again), the last significant debate among the GOP presidential candidates before Iowa goes to the caucuses will take place tonight in Sioux City. With just ten days left before Christmas, it will be the last mass-media event of the political season. That gives candidates one last opportunity to make a good impression that could last until Iowa voters go to the caucuses less than three weeks later – or commit a gaffe that will stick in the minds of voters for a long time.
Most eyes will focus on Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who put on an entertaining and combative show in Des Moines last Saturday. Romney, though, doesn’t stand a good chance of winning Iowa in the January 3rd caucuses. All Romney needs to do is not perform badly, in a way that would hurt his credibility in New Hampshire, Michigan, and Florida.
Gingrich has risen to the top of the polls in Iowa and nationally, but there have been a couple of signs that he has peaked and may be losing some momentum. A Gallup poll shows Gingrich leading, but losing six points in a week after drawing tough scrutiny from the media and the other candidates. An Iowa poll from Public Policy Polling (PPP) also shows a softening of both support and enthusiasm in the last week.
As Gingrich’s momentum softens – he still leads in all of these polls – which candidate can take advantage of the opening? A PPP poll shows Ron Paul in second place at 21 percent, one point behind Gingrich. PPP, however, has always been an outlier poll for Paul, whereas ARG and Insider Advantage put Paul’s support in the still significant 17 percent level.
Paul has two advantages in Iowa: his ability to organize, and his established base of support. In this cycle, he has also prospered from the Tea Party’s push of the GOP towards his view of economic policy – at least to some degree. That said, Paul has disadvantages when courting the conservatives that might get frustrated with both Gingrich and Romney, the most significant of which is foreign policy. Insisting that a nuclear Iran represents no threat to the US falls well outside of the foreign-policy mainstream of both parties, and his perceived hostility to Israel doesn’t exactly play well with the Right, either.
Add to that Paul’s lack of executive experience and his age, and he almost certainly will face a hard voter opposition when the caucuses open. Even Paul questions his stamina for a presidential campaign, telling reporters, "I'm not looking forward to anything being long and protracted.” After praising his organization, Paul concluded, “The question is: am I going to hold up if I keep doing all this."
Given that Paul is a year older than John McCain is now, that question leads to another about whether Paul, even if conservatives can find his foreign-policy stands acceptable, could handle the job itself for four years, let alone eight. It also poses the strategic question about whether running the oldest candidate in the field against the more youthful Barack Obama would be a disaster in the general election.
Which candidate, then, can fill what looks to be an opening to the right of Gingrich and Romney? At the moment, that candidate may be Rick Perry. In the Insider Advantage and ARG polls, Perry has more than doubled his support in the last couple of weeks, going from 5 percent to 13 percent in both. The Texas governor has launched a “saturation” ad buy in Iowa, spending over a million dollars in the three markets over the next couple of weeks on radio and TV spots. After a disastrous series of debates, Perry has suddenly become pretty good in the format, if not great. He got the better of Mitt Romney in Des Moines on Saturday, and stayed energetic and focused throughout the event.
After tonight’s debate, Perry has fully committed to retail politicking in Iowa. For the next two weeks, Perry will make 42 appearances and travel over a thousand miles to press the flesh and remind people of his record on jobs and fighting Washington, a record that got buried under his gaffes for most of October and November. As anyone who has covered Perry in person can attest, he is a master of retail politicking, turning on the down-home charm and connecting with social conservatives. It’s a strength that has served Perry well in Texas, perhaps the main reason why he’s never lost an election in his career.
The campaign’s current dynamics will help Perry in tonight’s debate. Everyone on stage will attack Romney and Gingrich as insufficiently conservative, and the two front-runners will mainly attack each other. Romney made a tactical error in going after Perry in the last debate, allowing Perry to rise to the occasion and resulting in the awkward $10,000-bet moment, so Romney won’t make that mistake a second time. Perry’s poll bounce might bring fresh attacks from Michele Bachmann, who has also risen back into low double-digits in the ARG and Insider Advantage polls, and she has scored points off of Perry in the past. Bachmann needs to get voters away from Gingrich more than she does Perry, however, so most of her attention will be elsewhere, and the same can be said for Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman.
That makes Perry the candidate to watch in tonight’s debate, and in the polling that follows. His confidence seems to have returned, and another good debate performance could ease the memory of his “oops” moment in November. A bad debate performance will make the Iowa tour moot, of course, as it will confirm that voters cannot place confidence in his ability to campaign against the Obama re-election team next fall. But assuming Perry can get through tonight’s debate in good shape and that conservative backing for Gingrich continues to soften, Perry has the resources and the talent to whip up a surprising finish by doing the campaigning that he does best -- and perhaps the final and only realistic chance of turning this race into something other than a marathon between Romney and Gingrich alone.