Tonight’s Republican presidential debate marks the beginning of the real campaign season, when GOP regulars start looking in earnest at the declared candidates for their party’s nomination. Participants include Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann; businessman Herman Cain; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Texas Rep. Ron Paul; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
It’s a big moment for many of the candidates – and for the political junkies who live for these events. How will Gingrich perform, given the big news about the mass resignation of his top aides? Can Romney convincingly claim the mantle of the front-runner? Will any of the lesser-known candidates “break through” to top-tier status?
But beneath the “horse race” aspect of the event, there is a serious decision to be made. Republicans need to find a candidate who both represents their deepest values and who can defeat Barack Obama. To that end, here are a few criteria that Republicans might want to keep in mind as they evaluate the candidates’ performances tonight:
1. Can the candidate discuss America’s problems honestly without frightening voters?
We live in serious times, caught in the grip of the worst economic downturn of most voters’ lifetimes, and with all economic signs pointing to continued – and worsening – conditions. Can the candidate discuss these issues frankly, but still manage to leaven his (or her) bleak assessment with some optimism about the future? Can s/he project a vision for handling tough choices (like needed reforms to entitlements) in a manner that will not lend itself to the predictable Democrat (and media) charges of being “cold” and “uncaring”? And can s/he criticize the President without coming off as petty or mean?
2. Can the candidate communicate the details that flesh out his/her “vision” for the country?
Beware charismatic candidates armed only with talking points. They may sound good in the initial stages of a campaign – and it’s easy, as dedicated partisans, to lose our hearts to the people who hit all the right oratorical notes. But a winning candidate has to have more. Look to see – can s/he do more than bring a hard-hitting but general indictment of the President’s stewardship of the economy? To what degree can s/he actually “connect the dots” between the President’s policies and our financial straits – and then explain how his/her specific plans will change conditions for the better?
3. Can the candidate pass the “Commander-in-Chief” Test?
After winning the nomination, one of the GOP candidates will have to stand on stage with President Obama and debate him. However inept his handling of the economy and foreign affairs, the President still has the advantage of incumbency. In order to win, the GOP nominee will have to convince Americans that they can be comfortable with him or her as Commander-in-Chief at a time when Americans are fighting abroad.
4. Can the candidate radiate sincerity and commitment without coming across as a nut?
It’s important that a candidate project a sense of commitment to his or her views. But it’s also important to make sure that in doing so, s/he doesn’t come across as odd, marginal or uncomfortably intense. No, Republicans can’t pick their standard-bearer simply to please independents or moderates. But choosing a candidate who cannot broaden his or her appeal beyond the core of the Republican base is a surefire recipe for electoral disaster.
5. Does the candidate have the temperament to handle the rigors of a long, difficult campaign?
Everyone knows that President Obama will start with three huge advantages: Plenty of money, incumbency, and an adoring, servile press. To stand a chance, his Republican opponent will have to have a temperament that can withstand the predictably grating parts of a campaign: The constant fundraising, the hectic pace (and multiple inconveniences) of a campaign, and the frustrating (often unfair) game of “gotcha” journalism, not to mention the calumny of the professional left. Temperament matters. Prima donnas and complainers need not apply.
So be alert for signs that might reveal whether a candidate is running as an ego trip, or from a genuine desire to serve. Note how s/he handles attacks or criticisms from other candidates – with peevish defensiveness, or with calm good humor? And if s/he stumbles – and, of course, any ultimate nominee inevitably will – does s/he have the mental toughness that it takes to “stay in the game” and come back?
The stakes are high. As the campaign begins, let us hope that the right candidate for these challenging times will emerge – and that Republicans will have the intellect, discernment and heart to choose the very best person to serve as America’s next president.