Debates serve as battlefield for GOP presidential candidates


illustrations by Tessa Petrich

Jonathan Baer, Staff Writer

As the nation’s attention focuses on the upcoming debate among Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul on Feb. 22, each candidate has been both the victim and victimizer when it comes to the harsh rhetoric, personal attacks, and stinging criticisms that have characterized the Republican primary debates.
After a total of  seven debates throughout January and one in Feb., the March 1 debate will be exceedingly important as a precursor to “Super Tuesday,” when ten states hold their primaries or caucuses on March 6.
“Although debating isn’t the only important quality in a president, it’s an effective way to evaluate many aspects of a candidate,” wrote Max Goldberg (’13) in an email. “Debating skill is indicative of high-level critical thinking, intelligence, ability to perform under pressure, and charisma – all important qualities in a leader.”
As the debates have progressed, it is clear that, depending on the candidate, they can act as either a political death trap or a political life preserver.

Perry struggles
For Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, subpar debate performances played a central role in his withdrawal from the race on Jan. 19.
“If we didn’t have 19 debates, trust me, Rick Perry would still be in this race,” said Roland Martin, a journalist on CNN’s “Starting Point,” as reported Jan. 26 on the website Mediaite.
On Nov. 9, Perry delivered one of his biggest debate blunders.  When asked which federal agency he would eliminate, Perry responded that when he becomes president, there are “three agencies of government … that are gone – Commerce, Education and the um, what’s the third one there? Let’s see. Oh five – Commerce, Education and the um, um,” said Perry, according to a transcript on
By not being able to pinpoint which federal agency that he would want to eliminate as president, Perry prompted worry that he was not capable of being president. The Washington Post even asked online readers on Nov. 11 to weigh in on the question, “Rick Perry: Is he the worst presidential debater ever?”

Gingrich surges
But not all of the candidates have stumbled. For former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, debates have been a saving grace.
Before the Jan. 19 South Carolina debate, hosted by NBC, Romney held a comfortable 10 percentage point lead over Gingrich. Yet, immediately after the debate, which many believed to be a strong performance for Gingrich, Romney’s lead dropped to a virtual tie, according to the Marist Poll. This boost ultimately drove Gingrich to win South Carolina on Jan. 21, beating Romney by approximately 12 percent.
With strong debate performances consistently propelling his candidacy, Gingrich has begun to seek more than just the scheduled debates. On Dec. 28, Gingrich challenged both President Obama and Mitt Romney to one-on-one, Lincoln-Douglas style debates, referring to a series of debates between then-presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas that consisted of no moderators or interruptions, simply the candidates and their ideas.
“We’ll find out… whether (Romney) likes the heat and wants to come in the kitchen,” said Gingrich a week before the Iowa caucuses, “or whether he is just another normal national politician with clever consultants and a lot of money and no willingness to stand up and tell the truth.”
Kyle Chong (’13) agrees, saying that one of the main purposes of debates is to “show weaknesses in the candidates.”

Debates offer a unique opportunity for the candidates: A chance to be in the national spotlight with their opponents. As candidates campaign from county to county in the next state on their schedule, they don’t often get many opportunities to address the nation side-by-side with their adversaries.
As a result, the debates are extremely popular. According to recent Nielsen ratings, CNBC’s Republican Debate on Nov. 9 drew 3.33 million views, compared with a CNBC Republican debate in 2007, which drew a mere 1.02 million viewers. As the primaries and caucuses have continued, these numbers have only risen. On Jan. 26, 5.4 million viewers tuned into the CNN-hosted debates in Florida, according to the Nielsen ratings.
In addition to increased popularity, the GOP debates have allowed viewers from across the nation to participate like never before.
During all the debates this year, viewers have been able to interact via Facebook or Twitter, depending on which one is collaborating with the event. In a nomination race that has heavily depended on voters in small states, Twitter and Facebook act as important national forums.
“Watching the GOP debates is like watching reality TV with an intellectual edge,” tweeted Eli Melrod (’13) on Oct. 18 in response to the Bloomberg and Washington Post sponsored GOP debate that night.
Additionally, on Jan. 16, at the Fox News-hosted GOP debate, Fox measured viewers’ reactions to each answer on Twitter. Viewers used the hashtags #answer and #dodge to tweet their reactions to candidate statements, which in turn generated a meter that displayed the audience’s overall reactions.

Audiences tune in
Fox News is not the first to use social media for the debates. CNN and CBS have also teamed up with Twitter, whereas NBC News has used Facebook to allow viewers to be more interactive.
As TV networks introduce new ways for audiences to be engaged in debates from their homes, networks have also found ways to incorporate audiences attending the debates.
Audience reactions have acted as meters of their own, revealing audience consensus at the debate, similar to how social media meters reveal the national audience consensus. Everything from shouting, to booing, to silence has presented TV viewers with an understanding of the debate atmosphere and how the audience members feel about the candidates.