Debates Alter Primary Race as Rivals Vie to Knock Out Romney

Michele Bachmann
Following her June debate debut, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota rose from 3 percent in a June 9-13 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll to 16 percent in the same poll conducted July 14-17. Photographer: Melina Mara/Pool via Bloomberg

They’ve helped squelch Rick Perry’s poll surge and fuel Herman Cain’s rise. They’ve given Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum platforms for their financially strapped candidacies. They’ve boosted Mitt Romney’s efforts to cast himself as the most electable Republican.

Televised debates are helping reshape the Republican presidential race, contributing to the volatility of a contest whose contours shift with every faceoff.

Following her June debate debut, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota rose from 3 percent in a June 9-13 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll to 16 percent in the same poll conducted July 14-17. Perry’s support stood at 26 percent in a Fox News poll conducted Aug. 29-31, shortly after he entered the race; it was 10 percent in the same poll conducted Oct. 23-25, after five candidate showdowns in which he acknowledged his performance was lacking.

“The debates have made and broken candidacies this year,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communication professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication in Philadelphia.

Among the top beneficiaries have been candidates such as Gingrich and Santorum, who have capitalized on the free airtime to boost their campaigns.

‘Underdog Candidates’

“It gives unknown, underdog candidates a lot of exposure,” said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist unaffiliated this year who advised Senator John McCain of Arizona during his 2008 presidential run.

The Republican presidential contenders are to meet tonight at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, for an economic-focused debate co-sponsored by CNBC and the state party that will be the year’s ninth such gathering. The gathering is the second to spotlight the economy; a similarly themed forum whose sponsors included Bloomberg News was held Oct. 11 in New Hampshire. Fourteen more debates are planned between now and March of 2012.

“It’s like an invitation nobody can refuse but internally it drives the campaigns absolutely crazy,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic media consultant who has advised several presidential campaigns. “They want to control their own campaign message, and then you have these debates every five minutes and it just throws everything up in the air.”

Michigan is benefiting from gains in the U.S. automobile industry, which is reviving after Obama led an $82 billion bailout and General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC emerged from bankruptcy.

Cain’s Challenge

The power of debates to alter the race has its limits. Cain, the former businessman who captured a front-runner position based largely on debate performances, is struggling to keep his standing after allegations from women who say he sexually harassed them in the 1990s when he headed the National Restaurant Association. His debate rhetoric is unlikely to defuse the issue.

Romney, who has called the accusations “particularly disturbing” and “serious,” plans to stay focused on the economy at tonight’s debate, said his strategist, Russ Schriefer.

“We’re going to show up tonight in Michigan to talk about jobs and the economy,” Schriefer said today in an interview on CNBC. “We have enough to do with one presidential campaign without advising two.”

‘Debates Matter!’

Romney has used the debates to make the case that he’s best-positioned to take on President Barack Obama. Neil Newhouse, Romney’s polling expert, circulated a memo Oct. 21 entitled “Debates Matter!” that attributed Perry’s decline in public polls to the debates in September and October that drew roughly 20 million viewers combined.

“During this period of time, the only thing that mattered was how the candidates stacked up against one another in the debates,” Newhouse wrote.

The debates also give Romney a chance to reassure voters skeptical of his positions on such social issues as abortion rights, said Greg Mueller, a Republican media strategist. “The more debates for him, the better,” Mueller said.

Perry, the Texas governor who shot to the top of polls after declaring his candidacy Aug. 13, plummeted after he stumbled in discussing illegal immigration and other issues in the debates.

‘Far From Perfect’

“We are not called to be perfect,” Perry said at a dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, on Oct. 22. “If any of you have watched my debate performances over the last three or four times, you know I am far from perfect.”

Perry’s campaign said on Oct. 27 that he might skip some of the future forums. He is still participating, even though his aides said the staged events are taking time away from early state venues.

“The whole 18-debate thing is killing retail politics -- not just for us, but for everyone,” said Paul Young, a senior adviser for Perry in New Hampshire. He said the five debates in September and October consumed about a dozen days that could have been spent campaigning.

With Cain fending off harassment allegations and Perry working to regain momentum, some Republican strategists said the primary front-runner roster could shift again after the next round of debates.

Gingrich ‘Emerging’

Gingrich has “done so well in the debates that he seems to be emerging,” said Connie Mackey, president of the Family Research Council Action Political Action Committee, a Washington-based group that opposes abortion. “Because of the debates, he’s getting another look.”

Tonight’s debate occurs in a state recovering from the recession at the second-fastest pace in the U.S., according to a new Bloomberg index that tracks that tracks the pace of growth across the nation. The rebound in Michigan -- which as of September still had unemployment of 11.1 percent -- has been spurred by improvements in the automobile and local manufacturing sectors, the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States Index finds.

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