What Each Candidate Needs to Do in N.H. Debates

What Each Candidate Needs to Do in N.H. Debates

By Carl M. Cannon - January 7, 2012

BRENTWOOD, N.H. -- Last summer, Republican activist Claira Monier had to practically beg her family and friends to come to a barbeque and hear Rick Santorum explain why he thinks he should be president of the United States. "I had trouble getting people to come," she recalls. "You wouldn't believe the calls I had to make."

Eventually, some 30 people showed up in her backyard. But by the end of the night, in a foreshadowing of the success of Santorum’s one-person-at-a-time strategy in Iowa, she could barely get them to go home. “Senator Santorum answered every question they had, until it was about 11 p.m.,” she said. “He stayed and stayed and stayed.”

She laughs about it now, as does Santorum, who acknowledged this week that Monier chides him about his absurdly long answers to questions from voters. That trait has been on display at town-hall meetings, including one hosted by Monier on Wednesday after Santorum arrived in New Hampshire flush with his near-win in the Iowa caucuses. This time she didn’t have to worry about papering the house. Santorum packed them in -- the audience was 10 times as large as the one last summer.

“Don’t settle for someone who can win,” he told the big crowd, taking direct aim at Mitt Romney’s strategy of portraying himself as the best general election candidate. “This is the time for bold colors, ladies and gentlemen, not pale pastels.”

Pale is not in Rick Santorum’s normal palette -- and he certainly doesn’t do pastel. A full-throated social conservative and cheerful culture warrior, Santorum learned this week that he wasn’t in Iowa anymore when students jeered him for implicitly criticizing New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage law -- and by equating gay marriage with polygamy.

Santorum has been peppered with questions raised by John McCain and other surrogates for front-runner Romney about whether he availed himself and his constituents of pork-barrel projects known as spending “earmarks” when he represented Pennsylvania in the Senate. Earmarks, McCain has been saying this week, “are gateways to corruption.”

But Santorum’s biggest barrier in his quest to build on his Iowa success isn’t his opponents. It’s time. Santorum is drawing big crowds, contributions are flooding in, and his poll numbers are inching upward daily. But Election Day here comes Tuesday, only one week after Iowa. For Santorum, the upshot is that the money has come too late to buy television time here, which means that his hopes -- like those of his rivals -- rest to a great degree on a stage he will share with the other four candidates during debates Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Public opinion polls show Romney’s lead holding steady at above 40 percent, with Ron Paul at about half that number, and Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman bunched in a third tier. Those numbers suggest a spirited fight for second place, with the likelihood that the guy who finishes last may be finished. So what does each man have to do in the debates?

Newt Gingrich: The former House speaker was riding high in the Iowa polls until a barrage of negative ads aired by pro-Romney forces brought him down to earth. Gingrich was embittered by it, and said so. He has signaled that he will go directly after Romney in the debates. Complaints about super PACs aren’t likely to galvanize New Hampshire Republicans, however. What would help Gingrich is the same thing that helped him earlier in the cycle: Perform so well in this format that Republican voters start spontaneously fantasizing about Gingrich talking circles around President Obama in general election debates next autumn.

“Watch the debates this weekend,” Herman Cain said Friday afternoon, “and I predict you will see a resurgence of Newt Gingrich.”

Jon Huntsman: Huntsman was a wildly popular governor of Utah, arguably the most conservative state in the union, when Obama tapped him to be ambassador to China. It’s a sign of the times that Huntsman is now the raging moderate in the field. That’s problematic enough in the modern GOP, but Huntsman’s other problem is that he doesn’t even rage. The affable candidate, mired in single digits, could help himself by showing some passion. Some nimrod fan of Ron Paul’s gave Huntsman just such an opening by posting a racist screed on YouTube targeting Huntsman and his family for adopting a Chinese girl.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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