The GOP debate curse

They’ve diminished – and humiliated – one Romney rival after another. Will Santorum suffer the same fate tonight? VIDEO

Topics: Opening Shot,

The GOP debate curseCORRECTS LOCATION TO THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH FLORIDA, INSTEAD OF UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA - Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, stand during the National Anthem at the Republican presidential candidates debate at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Credit: AP)

There’s further evidence this morning that Rick Santorum’s lead in Michigan is gone, with a new NBC News/Marist poll putting the former Pennsylvania senator 2 points behind Mitt Romney. And in Arizona, the same survey shows Romney opening up a 16-point edge over Santorum.

A loss in Arizona next Tuesday wouldn’t be much of a problem for Santorum, since it has been seen as a Romney redoubt. But Michigan is another story. It’s demographically friendly to Santorum, who seems to fare well with blue-collar and middle-class Republicans, and when he opened a significant lead there last week it became clear that the state was winnable for him.

Thus, Michigan has become something of a litmus test for the future of the GOP race. If Santorum can prevail in the face of aggressive spending and campaigning by Romney, it will show strength and endurance that has eluded previous Romney foes, and will make the possibility of a Santorum nomination much more real. Conversely, if Romney can engineer a victory, especially one by a solid margin, it will suggest that Santorum is just the latest flash in the pan and that the pattern that has defined the GOP process so far – Romney challenger emerges, surges and is then beaten back – still holds.

Which is why tonight’s debate, the final televised encounter between the candidates before next Tuesday (and before Super Tuesday, for that matter), looms so large. Debates have played an outsize role in shaping mass opinion in this campaign, and in helping Romney fend off his various chief rivals of the moment.

At various times, different candidates have shone while playing supporting roles — standing off on the side of the stage, receiving little attention from Romney and their fellow candidates, but managing to catch the audience’s interest with a compelling answer or two. This is how Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich both came to life as candidates, and it may help explain why Santorum was suddenly able to gain traction these past few weeks. But when they’ve had Romney’s (and the debate moderator’s/media panel’s) full attention, it’s been a different story, with one Romney foe after another wilting under the spotlight.

Part of the promise of Santorum’s candidacy has been that he’ll avoid the Debate Curse – that he’s actually a competent communicator who can handle the heat from Romney and everyone else that comes with being a front-runner and that he might actually walk away from the debate experience enhanced, not diminished.

To put this in some perspective, here’s the history of debate futility by Romney rivals that Santorum will try to defy tonight:

Romney vs. Tim Pawlenty

Pawlenty was not surging in the polls as Santorum is now, but he was widely seen as Romney’s most serious threat last spring and summer, meaning that he was in the spotlight when the candidates debated.

June 13: After telegraphing his intent to hit Romney over his healthcare plan (“ObamneyCare,” in Pawlenty’s telling), the former Minnesota governor is offered an opportunity to confront his opponent during the debate … and completely chickens out.

Aug. 11: Pawlenty still had no traction when this debate began, and with the Ames straw poll 48 hours away, he largely left Romney alone and focused his attacks on a more immediate threat, Michele Bachmann. It didn’t go very well, and by the end of the weekend Pawlenty was out of the race and a Romney threat had been permanently extinguished.

Romney vs. Rick Perry

Pawlenty’s failure to catch fire helped encourage Perry to enter the race, and the Texan immediately shot to the top of the polls. He seemed to be the magical candidate the race had been missing, someone who had natural appeal to the Romney-base but who was still credible enough to make the establishment comfortable.

Sept. 7: Perry’s first debate as a candidate isn’t a disaster, but his uneven performance – and especially his effort to defend his climate change skepticism by arguing that “Galileo got outvoted for a spell” — provides hints of trouble to come.

Sept. 12: More signs of trouble, with Perry struggling to offer a defense that resonates with conservatives of the HPV vaccination bill he signed in Texas. This results in an extended back-and-forth with Michele Bachmann, who wins loud approval from the crowd as she frames the vaccine as government overreach. And when she notes that Perry received campaign contributions from the vaccine-maker, he awkwardly replies that “If you’re saying I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”

“I’m offended for all the little girls who didn’t have a choice,” Bachmann replies. The impression that Perry may not be very quick on his feet begins to take hold.

Sept. 22: Perry officially blows it, failing in painful fashion to recite an extremely basic attack on Romney’s conservative credentials:

I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it — was before he was before the social programs, from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against Roe v. Wade? He was for Race to the Top, he’s for Obamacare, and now he’s against it. I mean, we’ll wait until tomorrow and — and — and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.

Afterward, the conservative pile-on begins, and the Romney campaign sighs with relief as Perry’s poll numbers crash.

Romney vs. Herman Cain

As Perry flames out, Cain starts to catch the right’s eye from his supporting role. By the middle of October, he’s left Perry in the dust and is threatening to do the same to Romney.

Oct. 18: But now that he’s in the spotlight, Cain finds himself facing aggressive questions from Romney and the other candidates, and from the debate moderator. Republicans quickly discover that he’s incapable of providing a simple, coherent defense of his 9-9-9 tax plan – and that he has literally nothing to say about anything else:

Romney vs. Perry (again)

A sexual harassment scandal accelerates Cain’s demise, once again leaving Romney as the clear front-runner – and stirring talk that Perry just might be able to earn a second look from Republicans, especially if he can step up his debate game …

Nov. 9: … but instead, this happens:

Romney vs. Newt Gingrich

With Cain and Perry going nowhere, the former speaker, who excels like no one else at making noise from the edges of the debate stage, moves into contention. By early December, he’s opened big leads over Romney nationally and in most of the early states, leading him to boast that “it’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”

Dec. 10: Romney comes after his newest chief rival hard in the early going, but Gingrich holds his ground fairly well. And then Perry, of all people, somehow gets under Romney’s skin, leading Romney to offer a $10,000 bet that serves as the debate’s headline moment. This may be the only debate in which Romney’s chief foe walked away in better shape than he entered.

Dec. 15: Again Romney shows up ready, and this time he avoids any gaffes. Meanwhile, Gingrich seems oddly passive and unwilling to engage with Romney’s attacks, much less lob any of his own. He seems to believe that he’ll be rewarded by GOP voters if he’s seen as running an exclusively positive campaign, and when the debate is over, he even tries to take back criticisms of Romney he’d made days earlier. This is the last debate Iowans see before their Jan. 3 caucuses – but in the weeks in between, they do see countless anti-Gingrich ads on their television screens.

Mitt vs. Gingrich (again)

Newt fades badly in Iowa and New Hampshire and his candidacy seems near its end. But Santorum fails to parlay his Iowa victory* into a credible showing in New Hampshire, which allows Gingrich to get back in the game in South Carolina – where he steals the show at two debates as Romney, still hoping to post a clean, campaign-ending victory, refrains from playing attack dog. That sets the stage for Florida, which suddenly becomes a do-or-die test for Romney.

Jan. 23: Faced with a clear and immediate threat, Romney punches away at Gingrich intently, but the former speaker is dull and unfocused in response. The contrast is jarring, and devastating to Gingrich, who blames debate sponsor NBC’s efforts to keep the live audience quiet.

Jan. 26: Gingrich tries a trick that has worked brilliantly for him before – picking a fight with the moderator – but this time it backfires miserably. Once again, the night belongs to Romney, who shreds Gingrich with the focus and intensity of a seasoned prosecutor. And once again, Gingrich seems incapable of mustering any comebacks. When the debate is over, it’s clear that Romney is on his way to victory in the Sunshine State

* * *

And now it’s Santorum’s turn. Because of the circumstances of his Iowa victory, he’s never had Romney’s attention at a debate like he’ll have it tonight. At times in previous debates, he’s mixed it up with Romney and shown the potential to be a far more dangerous challenger than Perry, Gingrich or Cain. But those were isolated exchanges. He’s never been in the spotlight like this before.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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