Oh, what a difference a week makes. I’ve been complaining for months about how ridiculously over-saturated this primary season has been with debates (like, did we really need two last week? My God…). Tonight however, I’m excited because for the very first time in this campaign, something has actually happened.
Yes, I know, the GOP race has been defined by swift “surges” and epic collapses going as far back as last March. For those of you keeping score at home, each of the following people has had “the momentum” or “a surge” take them to the top of the Republican race: Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum. And that doesn’t even include perpetual frontrunner-by-default Mitt Romney, or the endless discussion of whether the apparent candidate carousel would inevitably create a surge for Jon Huntsman (or the maddening discussion of whether the discussion of that discussion would create a self-fulfilling prophecy). But none of that really mattered; it was just polling then, and the volatility of it all seemed to prove that eventually, Republicans would settle down and nominate Romney. Even though many commentators noted that there was very little enthusiasm around Romney’s candidacy, very few seriously believed that anyone other than Romney would actually win the nomination: he had the money, he had the institutional support, he was the “most electable,” and it was his turn. “These are Republicans, for God’s sake. They’re not going to do anything crazy,” we were reminded. And so, when Romney appeared to eke out a win in Iowa, predictably dominated New Hampshire, and amassed a massive lead in the South Carolina polls, the once-“wide open” Republican race appeared to be over.
But then, well, Republicans did something crazy. In the space of less than a week, Newt Gingrich went from being an utter non-factor in South Carolina (Nate Silver’s model at FiveThirtyEight gave him an 8 percent chance of winning) to winning in a landslide and surging ahead to a huge lead in Florida. It appears that Newt is back and here to stay…at least for a while.
So what does this all mean for our debate tonight. First of all, look to see Romney in attack mode like we’ve never seen before. Until South Carolina, Romney has restrained from really attacking his opponents (his Super PAC’s tarring of Gingrich in Iowa notwithstanding), feeling it would mar the aura of inevitability that has been his strongest asset thus far. However, Romney spent all last week on the defensive, which surely hurt him in South Carolina. Tellingly, the Romney campaign spent most of today laying the groundwork for the gloves to come off tonight.
Second of all, expect Gingrich to hit back with equal force. Bare-knuckle politics has been Gingrich’s calling card ever since he entered national politics decades ago, and his campaign rightly feels the fighter’s style is what sparked the turnaround in South Carolina. By all indications, we can expect more of the same from Newt, which means tonight’s debate should be full of fireworks.
Third, expect Rick Santorum to end his alliance with Gingrich. As everyone who watched their post-South Carolina speeches knows, these two have been lovey-dovey for a while now, but no more. Santorum has been on the air today attacking Gingrich as “high-risk” and insufficiently conservative. It’s a strange move from a candidate who finished a distant third in South Carolina and is even further back in Florida. Santorum’s best chance at continued national relevance would appear to be to make a play for a spot on Gingrich’s ticket, but it looks instead that he’s trying to position himself to take over among conservatives should Gingrich fall again. In the words of Pepper Brooks from Dodgeball: “It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for ’em.”
Fourth, with the two titans slugging it out at center stage, expect Ron Paul to be largely ignored. Paul’s supporters have been complaining that their candidate doesn’t enough attention for years now, and that’s certainly not going to change now that media have a real conflict to report on.