Presidential debates have a rich history of making – or breaking – candidates. It began with the very first such debate held in 1960 when John Kennedy’s confident, youthful appearance doomed a sweating Richard Nixon to defeat. The latest candidate to feel the sting of a poor debate performance is Rick Santorum.
Pennsylvania’s former U.S. Senator narrowly lost the Michigan primary to Mitt Romney after having held a double digit lead in several polls just two weeks ago. After winning a trifecta of states on February 7th, Santorum surged both nationally and in Michigan. All that stood between Rick Santorum and an embarrassing, perhaps campaign-ending, rout of Mitt Romney was one debate in Arizona.
That debate did not go well for Santorum. True, there was not one "gotcha" moment or a major gaffe, but Santorum allowed himself to be on the defensive, sank into Washington speak, and permitted Romney to paint him as the beltway insider. Meanwhile, the former Massachusetts governor appeared poised and confident, in command and on the attack. Most analysts agree Santorum regained his balance the second half of the debate, but the damage had been done.
Santorum’s poor performance in the Arizona debate followed what was perhaps his best debate performance, the final meeting of the candidates prior to January’s Florida primary. In that debate, it was Santorum who was on the attack, pinning Romney to the mat on Romneycare and emerging as the strongest personality on the stage. That performance helped fuel Santorum’s wins in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.
There have been 20 debates among the Republican Presidential candidates this year and those forums have played an out-sized role in shaping and defining the race. Texas Governor Rick Perry entered the contest with a huge lead in the polls, but stumbled badly in his first debate performances, even suffering brain freeze while listing the three federal cabinet departments he would eliminate. Since those debates were his first exposure to a wide national audience, they created a bad image of Perry in the minds of voters; it was an image he was unable to overcome.
Conversely, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich owes the fact that he remains in the race to his superb debate performances. In the early debates Gingrich was the adult in the room, talking serious policy and keeping the focus on Barack Obama while the others bickered like children. In the weeks leading up to the South Carolina primary, which he won, Gingrich turned in perhaps his best debate performances greatly enhancing both his stature and his standing in the polls. Again, at the final debate in Arizona, Gingrich appeared the most presidential.
And then there is Mitt Romney. While the others have sprinted and stumbled, he has been the marathon man. Romney has never been the star of a debate, nor has he committed a campaign-defining gaff. Reflective of his managerial personality, he has simply done what needed to be done – nothing more, nothing less. And it is that consistency throughout the debates that has allowed him to weather periodic surges by the other candidates.
Fortunately for Rick Santorum the primary calendar gave him time to recover from his poor performance in the Arizona debate. He was on the upswing when Michigan voters went to the polls, falling just short of inflicting a humiliating defeat on Romney. Given that Michigan is Romney’s state of birth, and his father was a popular governor there years ago, Romney should have stomped Santorum. That it took a self-inflicted wound by Santorum to give Romney an anemic three percent win illustrates the fact that the former Massachusetts governor still has not closed the deal with the vast majority of Republican primary voters.
The good news for Pennsylvania Republicans is that our state’s presidential primary will actually matter this year. Romney leads in delegates, but needs to end up with more than Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul combined. A treasure trove of delegates is at stake on April 24th, when both Keystone state voters and those in the state of New York go to the polls. It will be a pivotal day. Whether or not the nomination is decided that day is, well, debatable.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)