There have been many debates in this primary season, but none thus far, in either party, has produced the kind of defining moment that fundamentally alters the dynamic of a campaign. This afternoon’s gathering of GOP candidates in Dearborn, sponsored by MSNBC and the Wall Street Journal, might be different. Mitt Romney has spent the past several weeks waging an offensive against Rudy Giuliani, first on immigration (ensuring that we all now know what a “sanctuary city” is), then on taxes and spending. Ever pugnacious, Giuliani took the bait and his campaign has engaged in the kind of tit-for-tat with the Romney operation that can cause voters to grow tired of both sides.
Meanwhile, as a bevy of curtain-raising stories have reminded us, tonight Fred Thompson makes his debate debut as a presidential candidate. Depending on your take, the stakes for Thompson couldn’t be any higher , or the bar for his performance has been set extremely low. Either way, the debate will likely determine just how formidable a candidate Thompson will turn out to be.
John McCain won the Michigan primary back in 2000, briefly keeping alive his rebel campaign against George W. Bush. He’ll have to channel some of that seven-year-old mojo to keep his slimmed down, not-dead-yet 2008 campaign heading back towards viability.
Next up is Mike Huckabee. As a Dan Balz item in the Washington Post noted this morning (scroll down), amid all the attention given to Hillary Clinton’s lead in the new Des Moines Register poll among Iowa Democrats, scant notice was paid to the Republican poll. It showed Romney maintaining his good-sized lead in Iowa, at 29, with Thompson jumping into second place at 18, and Giuliani sliding to fourth place with 11, just behind Huckabee, who registered 12. Despite the focus on the threat made by James Dobson and other religious conservative leaders to back a third party candidate if the GOP nominates someone to their liking (i.e., Giuliani, Thompson or McCain), the fact is that the place social conservatives can have the most immediate impact on the presidential election is in the Republican primaries — not in a quixotic third party candidacy that will be blamed for dooming GOP chances of retaining the White House. Which means that if social conservatives are going to be a force in this election, they will have to rally around a candidate, and soon. Huckabee’s emergence in Iowa suggests that may be beginning to happen. Today’s debate offers the former Arkansas governor a chance to break through.
Finally, there’s Ron Paul, whose anti-Iraq War, libertarian message has made him this campaign cycle’s surprise phenom. He forces the other candidates to spend more time defending the Bush administration than they’d like. And having pulled in as much money in the third quarter as John McCain, Paul isn’t about to fade away.