A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato
Tonight marks the third televised debate of the 2012 campaign for the Republican contenders, and by far the most important one yet. It's not that the audience in Iowa or on TV will be enormous in the midst of August vacations and summer doldrums. Rather, the stakes for a debate just a couple of days from the start of the influential Ames, Iowa straw poll are high. Impressive performances by some of the candidates and gaffes by others could affect the Ames outcome. A devastating one-liner might reverberate all through the primary and caucus season.
The sub-plots are obvious to all. Mitt Romney's target isn't on stage: Romney will nourish his shaky frontrunner image by targeting President Obama and humming "Kumbaya" to his fellow Republicans. His fellow aspirants are unlikely to be as kind. Maybe Tim Pawlenty, now engaged in a rear-guard battle with fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann, will deliver the punch to Romney he withheld in a June debate -- an embarrassing moment of hesitation that has cost Pawlenty dearly.
The tension between Pawlenty and Bachmann will be even more fun to watch. T-Paw is in a corner on this one. If he wouldn't smack a man last time, can he now do it to a woman -- one who Republicans think was already wronged this week by Newsweek's unattractive cover photo?
The undercard candidates -- Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and so on -- will do everything they can to get noticed. Expect the wildest jabs and the most outrageous statements from them. They know the clock is ticking in the winnowing process. That's what Iowa's for: not to pick the eventual nominee but to narrow the field. Some of them won't be around for the real Hawkeye slugfest, come the winter caucuses.
Other than an intense dislike of the incumbent president, the only emotion uniting this GOP group may be simmering resentment of a late-starting pretender who is grabbing their glory. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in a provocative in-your-face move, has decided to steal the spotlight from Ames on Saturday with a South Carolina speech that reportedly contains a near-announcement of candidacy. Which of his eventual opponents will float like a butterfly and sting Perry like a bee tonight?
By the way, the Iowa debate, sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party, Fox News and the Washington Examiner, precedes five more slugfests between now and the end of October.* There are bound to be many more from November on. In 2007-2008 the Democratic presidential candidates participated in 16 televised encounters, and the Republicans 14. By this time in 2008, Democrats had already had three TV face-offs, and Republicans four.
Over time the number of TV debates has been increasing. A dozen years ago, Democrats held nine and Republicans took part in 13 -- but none were sponsored by this date in 1999.
It's a far cry from 1948 and 1956. Few remember the historic first broadcast debates ever held during nomination seasons. In '48 GOP favorites Tom Dewey, governor of New York and the 1944 Republican presidential nominee, and Harold Stassen, former governor of Minnesota, took to the radio airwaves on May 17 in Portland, OR. Their sole debate, headquartered at station KEX-ABC, was limited to a single issue: the outlawing of the Communist Party in the U.S. Remarkably, the estimated listenership was somewhere between 40 million and 80 million, at a time when America's entire population was about 146 million. The patient 1948 audience sat through 20-minute opening statements by each candidate, plus eight and a half minute rebuttals!
It was the Democrats' turn in 1956. Former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, the 1952 Democratic presidential nominee, and U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee had an hour-long debate -- the first to be televised -- in Miami on May 21, with ABC-TV sponsoring. Progress had been made. The opening statements were cut to three minutes, and all domestic and foreign policy topics were permitted.
We've come a long way, baby, since those primitive days. No longer a rarity and anything but stuffy, presidential nomination debates are commonplace, and rock 'em, sock 'em affairs. If the candidates cooperate tonight in Iowa, we will have plenty to chew over for days.
*Upcoming GOP debates:
- September 7: NBC News/POLITICO debate in Simi Valley, CA
- September 12: CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, FL
- September 22: Fox News/Republican Party of Florida debate in Orlando, FL
- October 11: Washington Post/Bloomberg debate in Hanover, NH
- October 18: CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference debate in Las Vegas, NV
Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
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