My, how the time has flown. On Wednesday night, the Republican candidates for president will meet for the 20th time in this cycle, a stretch that started on May 5, 2011, in Greenville, S.C. It may surprise people to recall that only two of the current four candidates participated in that event: Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Of the other three participants, Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain exited the race long before the first votes were cast in the Iowa caucuses, and Gary Johnson never seriously contended. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich joined the debate club in June at the second official debate, and a cast of also-rans came and went between debate No. 1 and debate No. 20.
Even the numbering sequence is open to, er, debate. No one would count the Lincoln-Douglas-style debate between Gingrich and Cain, although it may have been one of the most informative of the series. Should we count Mike Huckabee's well-regarded forums, in which he questioned each candidate individually? If so, Wednesday's is the 22nd debate, not the 20th. And Sen. Jim DeMint's "Palmetto Freedom Forum" missed Santorum, Rick Perry, and Jon Huntsman, but did include three of the four contenders on Survivor: Republican Island. Nevertheless, in official debate history, it remains a nonsanctioned event.
The only game changers in tonight's debate will come on perceived gaffes and facial expressions rather than actual policy differences and defense of value systems.
The 20 debates may seem unprecedented, but this cycle actually lags behind 2008. From the May 3, 2007, debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley to the final Groundhog Day debate (which also included Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) in New York in 2008, Republicans held 21 presidential nomination debates. That paled in comparison with the number of debates held by Democrats in the same cycle, 26 in all. The final five debates featured only Obama and Clinton, excluding the joint GOP-Democratic debate in New York.
This cycle, after all of this debate, voters must have gotten to know these four GOP candidates rather intimately... right? Is that not why the political parties and the media stage these events? We know that the debates drive candidate support. Two candidates can relate their surges in the polls directly to debate moments. Herman Cain caught his updraft in late September when he gave a powerful testimony on his personal opposition to "ObamaCare," the issue that fired up the Tea Party. Gingrich soared after scolding CBS moderator Scott Pelley on the rules of war in November, and then again in South Carolina when he turned the tables on CNN's John King and lambasted him for asking about a story involving Newt's (second) ex-wife. One candidate dissipated his support in the debates, too; Rick Perry had been expected to swamp the field on his record of creating jobs in Texas and ended up in fifth place in Iowa and out of the race by South Carolina, thanks to a series of debate gaffes and stumbles.
But did we really learn anything about these candidates outside of their ability to debate? What did we learn, other than who could attack the media and who had trouble answering questions in a game-show format? Every memorable moment from the debates came from process questions and gotcha politics, with the exception of Cain's answer on "ObamaCare." The media reporting on the debates focused on everything except policy, in large part because the format doesn't allow for substantial discussion on complicated policy areas. The four survivors of the debate process succeeded not because of the debates, but either in spite of or regardless of them.
Thankfully, the string of debates appears to have come to a close. Late last week, Romney and Paul pulled out of a scheduled pre-Super Tuesday CNN debate in Georgia, and Santorum quickly followed suit. Gingrich complained bitterly about the cancellation, saying his competitors were "afraid to debate Newt Gingrich." Perhaps the better word is "tired." MSNBC has also canceled the March 5 debate that was to have taken place at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, where the series began. The only other debate still left on the schedule is in Portland, Ore., on March 19. But none of the candidates have committed to that event, and at this point, it seems very doubtful that anyone will.
That means Wednesday's debate is perhaps the last time we will see the candidates on stage together in this primary cycle. Can we expect that this event will be any more meaningful than the 19 game shows that preceded it? Probably not, but it could be important for Gingrich and Santorum. John King gets the nod again as moderator for CNN, a curious decision after King's performance in the debates overall and especially since this might be the final opportunity to have Wolf Blitzer run the show. If Gingrich can rekindle the embers of his campaign with another attack on the media — especially one that produces a fumbling response, like King's in South Carolina, rather than the far more effective riposte Blitzer gave Gingrich in Florida — he could perhaps generate a third surge among conservatives.
For Santorum, his momentum makes him the biggest target in the debate. CNN will no doubt open a host of social-conservative issues and force Santorum to talk about contraception and Satan all night long. If he falls into that trap, his momentum will dissipate quickly. If he can turn the tables on King and force the conversation back to religious and economic liberty, Santorum will ease fears that he is too distracting to beat Obama on the economy.
In the end, though, this debate will probably produce nothing more than a final round of gotcha moments and a lot of talk about negative ads from other candidates in the field. The only game changers will come on perceived gaffes and facial expressions rather than actual policy differences and defense of value systems. After 20 of these debates, that will sound like an appropriate finale to American Political Gladiators, which has all of the political substance of the original, with none of the costumes or suspense.