Debates take toll on Republican field

Televised debates have had an outsize impact on this year’s Republican presidential race. But the demands of the debating schedule — Saturday’s event in South Carolina was the eleventh major clash — is taking its toll on the candidates, who find themselves constantly preparing for primetime.

The frequency of the debates cuts back on the time available for retail politicking in Iowa and other early-voting states. Even seasoned campaign veterans are now beginning to ask: How many debates are too many?

“Debates are good, but we’re reaching overload,” Ed Rollins told The Hill. Rollins, who was the campaign manager for Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) before stepping down in September, added that under the current schedule “there are going to be 20-plus debates in this primary process. That is way too many.”

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Political professionals note that debates — the preparation, the logistics, the debate itself and the post-event ‘spinning‘ — take up an enormous amount of time. It is plausible that some of that time could be better spent building up the grassroots in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“You can’t just have an air war,” said David Yepsen, who covered many presidential campaigns during a 34-year career with The Des Moines Register. “You have to have an air war and a ground war.”

Even Rollins observed with some sympathy that the campaign of Gov. Rick Perry (Texas) has “basically lost a week in a very critical period, when you only have about six weeks to go” before the first votes are cast.


Rollins was of course referring to the fallout from Perry’s excruciating 53-second fumble at last Wednesday’s debate in Michigan.

Perry has since then tried to make light of his error in forgetting one of the government bodies, the Department of Energy, that he would cut if elected president. During Saturday’s clash, moderator Scott Pelley asked Perry a question about the Energy Department, and a smiling Perry interjected, “Glad you remembered it.”

The Texas governor’s aides have also sought to emphasize that there is more to winning elections than performing well on the debate stage. The fact that they have such a strong motivation to make this argument does not necessarily mean it is without merit.

“Debates are a component of the political process,” Perry spokesman Mark Miner told The Hill, “but they aren’t everything.”

Miner asserted that “retail campaigning” and TV advertising play at least as big a role in an election’s outcome. He also sought to draw attention to the importance of policy speeches. In debates, Miner noted, “you’re never going to get out a full policy in a 60-second answer or a 30-second rebuttal.”

The question of how to grapple with the debate process is not exclusive to Republicans, nor to this year’s process. In his book “The Audacity to Win,” President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe writes of an early agreement between him and advisers to Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

The three aides decided they would together try to winnow the number of debates and joint appearances that their candidates would attend. The alternative, Plouffe writes, was that “we each would lose both flexibility and control of the most important asset in any campaign, our candidate’s time.”

The putative pact worked imperfectly for Democrats in 2008, however, and it doesn’t seem like a realistic idea in this year’s Republican contest.

“There isn’t really a candidate with enough stature to say ‘no’ to the debates,” Yepsen said. “The campaigns will all tell you, yes, there are too many debates — but they are powerless to stop them.”

This pattern can also become self-perpetuating. First, the focus on debates is so strong that candidates can easily neglect more low-key, localized efforts. But if a candidate then feels that he or she is falling behind in respect of grassroots organizational strength, the desperation for a splashy debate performance can be heightened, and the spiral deepens.

Rollins said that the debates have been so important this year in part because there are “a bunch of candidates who got in late. They have had to introduce themselves, and they do not yet have the structure to campaign in the more normal way.”

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The popularity of the debates with the viewing public has also been significant. As The New York Times noted last month, a September Republican debate on Fox News attracted 6.1 million viewers, almost double the figure the same network had drawn for a Republican debate in the corresponding month of the 2007-2008 election cycle.

Bill Lacy, the director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, suggested that the high viewing figures were probably not a consequence of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. Instead, he said, the rise was rooted in the fact that at the moment “the Republican electorate is extraordinarily intense, fired up and disappointed with the president’s leadership.”

One of the advantages of having this many debates, as Lacy and others noted, is that they will likely strengthen the eventual Republican nominee for the clashes to come with President Obama.

Yepsen argued that the president himself provides a template in this respect. Anyone wanting to see just how much improvement could come with practice would, he suggested, “only have to go back and look at Obama’s last debate four years ago, and look at the first one. That’s the good news — that it prepares the eventual nominee.”

Such improvement, Yepsen cautioned Republicans, could be vital.

“I think some Republicans are over-confident. This [election] is not over with yet,” he said. “Yes, Obama is vulnerable. But the Republicans are still going to need a candidate who is fast on his or her feet.”

In this respect at least, the endless rounds of sparring may pay off when the big fight comes.