The First Presidential Debate: What Difference Will It make?

Bookmark and Share Tonights first actual debate between candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination is garnering more attention for who isnt participating than who is participating. It was the hope of the debates two sponsors, the South Carolina Republican Party and Fox News, to hold the type of spectacle that would have attracted a full compliment of the anticipated candidates and therefore, by its very nature, draw an extremely large national audience of anxious voters interested in getting a good, first time look at the individuals that seek to unseat President Obama. Unfortunately, the scheduled timing of the debate seems to have been way ahead of the schedule that most of the G.O.P. presidential field is on.

As a result, many of the most prominent and widely anticipated top tier candidates will not be in attendance.

This has produced a backlash among South Carolina Republicans who vow to hold the absence of those candidates against them when it is time to vote in their critical early primary. The disappointment they feel is understood, but the blatant bitterness of their vindictive sentiments is immature and irrational. It will also be forgotten by the time South Carolina Republicans go to vote in the Republican Primary. These voters who are anxious to see President Obama defeated in 2012, will be more concerned about the issues and how the candidates address them, than they will be with their absence from a debate that took place a year earlier.

That said, tonights debate still offers a chance to have a significant effect on the shape of the Republican field.

Participating in it will be former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, businessman Herman Cain, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul. While each of those five candidates have either relatively low name ID or relatively low support, this forum will provide an opportunity for any number of them to make news and gain a degree of attention that could propel them from perceived long shots, to significantly viable candidates.

Here is a rundown at what it at stake for the five debate participants.

Tim Pawlenty:

Up to now, Tim Pawlenty has been a back up choice for many. He is the candidate who many people currently see as the guy they might be able to support if their first choice stumbles or drops out. Tonights debate affords Pawlenty the opportunity to go from being just one of those guys running, to being one of the candidates to seriously consider. For that to happen, Pawlenty needs for two things to happen. First, he must win this debate. He is considered one of those few top tier candidates, and in a debate that consists of others who are bottom tier candidates, if any one of them dominates over Pawlenty, he will remain just one of those guys running. The second thing he must do is catch on. Pawlenty needs to walk away from this debate having said something that allows him to connect ideologically with the Republican base, quotable, newsworthy, and memorable.

Rick Santorum:

Former Senator Santorum probably has the most at stake tonight. If he does not land a few knock out punches while at the same time emanating a presidential aura, he risks remaining a bottom tier candidate for a long time to come. This debate could be a breakthrough of sorts for Santorum. If he connects, it could persuade many likely voters and financial donors to take his candidacy more seriously than they currently do. More than any of the others in the debate, Santorum must demonstrate that he is in serious contention for the nomination.

Ron Paul:

There isnt much more that Ron Paul can do to boost his support in this debate than he has done in any of the debates he has been in during past presidential elections. If Paul hopes to become someone who is truly in contention for the Republican nomination, he needs to convey his beliefs in a way that are not perceived as unrealistic and unachievable. One thing that also might help him is a convincing way to maintain his beliefs but not seem to be a total isolationist. For many, some of Pauls foreign affairs view are attractive but for many more, there is a belief that the United States has a need and responsibility to play a role in world events that is bigger than Ron Paul supports. And while many find it acceptable to debate how big a role we should play, they do not agree with Ron Pauls seeming desire to totally detach us from the world. If Paul can demonstrate that he is not an isolationist, he will make it possible for his campaign to finally receive election results that are higher than his usual single digit or low teens.

Gary Johnson:

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson probably has the lowest name ID of all the participants. For that reason, the bar need not be very high for him tonight. But he does have two things he can and should do. As self-described Libertarian-Republican, he is in a natural fight for the same pool of voters who are attracted to Ron Paul. But the hardcore Ron Paul fan base is not likely to jump ship. His fans are like the followers of a cult or Jim Jones in Jamestown. So the best he can do with them is prove to be worthy of consideration. But at the same time, for the rest of the voters, Johnson has to convince people that he is more capable of applying his beliefs to the practical application of government than Ron Paul can. As a former governor, unlike Ron Paul, he has successfully translated his beliefs into legislation that he had to actual carry out. If Gary Johnson can get that point across, take advantage of his outsider image, and present innovative ideas that seem realistic, he will come out of this debate ahead the game.

Herman Cain:

There is no doubt that Herman Cains superior oratory skills will allow him to dominate in this debate. From him will come the headlines that are written the day after the event. Cain will undoubtedly articulate his positions on the issues in a way that many will strongly agree with. He will appeal to voters and make a very favorable first impression on the general electorate in this, his first national audience. Those are givens. So what Herman Cain really needs to do is prove that he is a viable candidate who can actually attract enough broad based support to defeat President Obama. This will be difficult to achieve in one debate, but for Herman Cain, while many will be inspired by what he says, his electability will be the biggest hurdle for him to overcome. That hurdle is so high for Cain, that he must exploit every opportunity he has, to demonstrate that he has a realistic shot at winning. I am absolutely certain that everyone will love what Herman Cain has to say, but he must leave them not focusing on any the perception that he has a snowballs chance in hell of getting elected.

The debate will take place in Greenville, South Carolina at 9:00 pm EST and can be seen on Fox News Channel and

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  1. […] The First Presidential Debate: What Difference Will It make? […]

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