Five lessons learned from the GOP's 20 TV debates

The Globe and Mail

Republican presidential candidates, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talk following a Republican presidential debate Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Ariz. (Nick Oza/Associated Press/Nick Oza/Associated Press)

Twenty televised debates, nearly 40 hours of often entertaining reality political TV, and not another debate in sight.

Even if another Republican leadership debate does not take place in 2012 – and there are political junkies who will no doubt shudder at the thought, while their partners cry out ‘hallelujah’ – the debates that started last June in New Hampshire mark an unprecedented chapter in U.S. politics for their sheer number and the interest they generated.

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And while a stage of eight candidates is now down to four, can anyone confidently say that the process has identified the best GOP candidate to take on President Barack Obama in the autumn?

Practically every candidate still standing, including those who dropped out of the race, has challenged Mitt Romney’s front-runner status. Now, it’s Rick Santorum’s turn to surge – only highlighting the party’s unease over the Romney candidacy.

I have been glued to the TV for about half of these debates, and as I finally relinquish the household remote control for regular scheduled programming, here are my five takeaways:

The debate stage has the power to propel – and destroy

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann delivered a strong debate performance last June that led to a surge and propelled her to victory in Iowa’s Ames Straw Poll in August – a small, but positive start for her campaign. But under the debate stage spotlight, her candidacy wilted.

Texas Governor Rick Perry’s ”oops” moment in November, as he racked his brain to remember the names of the three federal agencies he promised to eliminate, turned his candidacy into a punchline.

Even Newt Gingrich – the great debater himself – who was propelled to victory in the January 21 South Carolina primary off strong debate performances, in which he electrified audiences, felt the sting of a live TV debate ‘smack down.’

When Mr. Gingrich tried to draw attention to the fact that Mr. Romney had investments in mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Mr. Romney deployed some of that handy research provided by his campaign team: “But have you checked your own investments?” Mitt Romney asked the former House speaker during a televised debate in Jacksonville, Fla.

“You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

To which a sheepish and unprepared Mr. Gingrich replied: “Right.”

Poll numbers and state primary results moved, in part, because of how candidates performed in debates. For voters, debates mattered.

Mitt Romney’s ‘core’ matters

The former Massachusetts governor, when properly prepped by his debate team, understood how to deliver an attack on the debate stage.

Republican voters, often in polls and sometimes at the ballot box, have indicated that Mr. Romney is the most electable GOP candidate in an autumn contest against Barack Obama.

He is presidential.

“I mean, if you were casting a movie where you needed someone to play president, you’d definitely pick him,” Hollywood actor, director and long-time Republican voter Clint Eastwood said last year.

In spite of those ‘presidential’ qualities, voters are not coalescing around his candidacy.

Audiences doubt his authenticity, and they question his ‘core.’

“When you combine a record of uncertainty – running first as a senator, as a liberal; governor as a moderate; then as a conservative for the presidency, people wonder where your core is,” former GOP candidate Jon Huntsman said in early January. “Trust is going to be a centrally important theme for the election cycle.”

In debates, Mr. Romney never settled the question around the heart of his candidacy to the satisfaction of conservative voters: what is driving him, and can he be trusted? He can thank, in part, his rivals for sowing that doubt. But Mr. Romney’s passion for a conservative agenda never broke through.

It pays to attack the ‘elite media’

The GOP debates were a bonanza for the TV networks who pulled in large viewing audiences.

Last night’s heavily produced CNN trailer promised a “grand showdown” in Arizona, and watching candidates walk on to the state you would be forgiven for thinking they were contestants in a game show.

The candidates often repaid their hosts with stinging attacks that went down well with Republican audiences.

Mr. Gingrich’s bold attacks against the “elite media” included a rebuke of CNN moderator John King for beginning a South Carolina debate with a question about allegations that Mr. Gingrich sought an “open marriage.” The audiences lapped it up.

Mr. Romney showed about the same amount of respect for the CNN moderator last night – once again, John King – when answering a question about what he thought was the greatest misconception about him.

Mr. King interrupted what appeared to be Mr. Romney’s pre-prepared closing debate statement and reminded the former Massachusetts governor that the question was about the greatest misconception about him.

Mr. Romney fired back: “You ask the questions you want; I give the answers I want.”

You can always count on Ron Paul to entertain

In earlier debates the former Texas congressman got lost in the crowd and getting the attention of the moderator was the challenge.

But as the field winnowed, Mr. Paul enjoyed more time to deliver some of the most memorable debate moments.

Even in last night’s Arizona debate, when asked why his campaign was running an ad in Michigan accusing Mr. Santorum of being a “fake,” Mr. Paul replied: “Because he is a fake.”

Mr. Santorum, sitting next to Mr. Paul, replied: “I’m real Ron, I’m real.”

“Congratulations,” Mr. Paul said wryly.

Whether he is lampooning Newt Gingrich for his grandiose visions or challenging his opponents to a bike race, Mr. Paul was consistently authentic on-stage.

In a debate in January, he was pressed on his position that he would be willing to talk to any world leader.

“Imagine you’re in the oval office, you speak to [Cuban leader]Raul Castro, what would you say to him?” asked CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer.

“Well,” he said and paused. “I’d ask him what he called about,” he said with a laugh.

Twitter can be a debate-watcher’s best friend

While the debates have yielded some unforgettable moments, the world of Twitter has shown itself to be an equally entertaining way to experience the debates.

There are the die-hard followers of various candidates slamming their opponents, the witty tweets of political reporters, and enough chuckles to pull one through a debate dry spell.

During last night’s Arizona debate, there were calls to fact-check Mr. Romney’s referencing of Seinfeld character George Costanza.

In earlier debates, there were Twitter drinking games for every time Newt Gingrich mentioned ‘elite media’ or community organizer Saul Alinsky.

Twitter, as it turned out, was an indispensable companion for many debate watchers.

Follow on Twitter: @affanchowdhry