The Final Phase

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By Steve Deace

The final two Republican presidential debates before the Iowa Caucuses have come and gone, giving voters their lasting impression of the candidates on the same stage together.

Given the high viewership of both the ABC debate on Saturday and the Fox News debate on Thursday, not to mention their proximity, I believe voters will see these debates as one event and lump them in together, along with the rest of the late-breaking news on the campaign trail. That’s especially the case when you consider how little time is left between now and January 3rd, and how several candidates do not have the resources to go all-out on the air with the advertising that gives them a captive audience with voters.

So as we enter the final phase of the campaign with the Iowa Caucuses just 19 days away, here’s where I believe each candidate stands:

Michele Bachmann

She did a better job of stating her case as a presidential candidate in the first debate with her stinging “Newt Romney” references, and then following that up with why she should be the alternative. In the second debate her attacks against Newt Gingrich (Fannie/Freddie) and Ron Paul (foreign policy) were even sharper and more effective. She drew blood from both, and hurt both of their chances of winning the Caucuses. However, by dropping her effective “Newt Romney” catchphrase she might have actually helped Mitt Romney more than herself on Fox News. That’s because she was so much on the attack that I wonder if voters missed her selling them on why she was the alternative to who she was attacking, as opposed to her just telling voters how weak Gingrich and Paul are in certain areas. People prefer something to vote for, not something to vote against. If Bachmann had the resources to go back on the air and runs ads about herself similar to the ones on the debt ceiling issue she ran before the Straw Poll, she could better capitalize on these attacks. Barring that I fear she did more to hurt the frontrunners then help herself. If I was Romney, I was an especially big fan of Bachmann’s aggressive debate performance on Thursday, because she softened up my competition and left me out of it while Willard got to take the high ground for the most part. Bachmann needs to sell herself as much – if not more so – then she attacks the frontrunners.

Newt Gingrich

Other then when Bachmann struck a nerve on his Fannie/Freddie connections, Gingrich was stellar in both debates. His second hour on Thursday was particularly outstanding, and he got some of the loudest applause you can get in Iowa when he touched on an out of control judiciary branch. Nonetheless, with no more debates this now becomes about retail politics and advertising. If I were Gingrich, I would try to have about 10 more debates between now and January 3rd, because he’s at his best when directly contrasted with his peers and Gingrich is behind on the ground in Iowa. Gingrich’s first TV ad was very good, but he needs to roll up his sleeves and do an aggressive town hall tour in Iowa. If he loses Iowa to anyone other than Paul it will be seen as a mortal wound to his campaign. He needs to organizationally put a firewall around the state, and get out there and let people see him as a person—not just the guy in all the attack ads flooding the airwaves.

Ron Paul

Any other candidate would be toast after the past 72 hours Paul has had. First there was his refusal to sign the Personhood pledge signed by Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich, and Rick Perry—despite the fact he signed the Susan B. Anthony pledge. Then there was getting the endorsement of homosexual activist Andrew Sullivan, followed by the revelation of Paul’s close relationship with a family that owns one of the largest infanticide chains in California. But the coup de grace was Paul’s naïve pre-War of 1812 foreign policy views that were sadly on full display Thursday night. Paul’s chances of winning January 3rd were definitely diminished, but it’s hard to tell to which degree because he has a coalition that operates outside the traditional Republican framework and still has the best organization in the state. He’s got such a cult of personality that has abandoned all critical thinking that at this point he could name a unicorn as his running mate, and his hardcore supporters would just latch on all the more. It’s too bad, too, because on the stuff Paul is right about he can’t possibly be more right. One thing is for certain, if a candidate with Paul’s foreign policy views wins the Iowa Caucuses that will be the final nail in Iowa’s first in the nation status. Like it or not, the media and the Republican Party itself will simply discredit the results and start the process over in New Hampshire.

Rick Perry

Perry helped himself by signing the Family Leader and Personhood pledges, and he’s finally getting some traction with the television ads he’s running. His debate performance on Saturday was okay considering how low his standards are, but then on Thursday night I thought he was not just good compared to what we’ve seen from him, but objectively good in general. For the first time I could actually envision Perry being the President of the United States, and people are starting to see him as a likeable, folksy fellow again—not just the gaffe-ridden bumbler of his first few months on the campaign trail. There is no doubt the situation is still very fluid, and he still has a lot of access to resources, which is why I think Perry may be the only candidate in the race in position to substantially help himself the final 19 days.

Mitt Romney

Like Paul, Romney is playing by a different set of rules. His support is largely set in stone. He’s probably not going to win Iowa, but he doesn’t have to. He just needs to soften up Gingrich the rest of the way and hope Perry stays down, because in Romney’s gameplan those are the only two candidates with the resources to take him on over the long haul. Besides that, anything Romney gets out of Iowa is gravy.

Rick Santorum

Was way too passive on Saturday night, and then was really good on Thursday night in the limited time he had. He does the one thing Bachmann often neglects to do, which is show why he is the alternative to the skepticism conservatives have about “Newt Romney.” However, he wasn’t as assertive as Bachmann in the final two debates, so he often seemed left behind. It’s almost like Santorum does well what Bachmann doesn’t, and vice versa. Together they’re the ideal candidate, but separate they split the baby in half. It’s very difficult to foresee a path to victory for Santorum minus an endorsement from the Family Leader and/or Steve King. But regardless of what you may think of Santorum’s chances, he did the nation a favor by finally being the first candidate to confront Romney directly on what he did to marriage in Massachusetts. Everything Santorum said was correct.