Preview: The Final Debate?

Posted: Feb 22, 2012 7:05 PM

It's been a long and bumpy ride, but it appears that CNN will air the season finale of The Republican Debate Show tonight at 8pm ET.  Two planned pre-Super Tuesday forums have been called off, and a third event in late March isn't likely to survive either.  So, somewhat astonishingly, tonight's tilt could be the last primary debate of the cycle.  The four remaining GOP hopefuls will face off in Mesa, Arizona, hoping to influence voters in that state, Michigan, and beyond.  Here's what to expect from each candidate:

Mitt Romney has captured the lead in both states that vote next week, even though he still trails Santorum nationally.  It seems as though his campaign is finally taking many observers' constructive criticisms to heart: They're crafting a goal-oriented agenda the former governor can embrace and parlay into a positive, forward-looking campaign.  Attack dog Romney was brutally effecient against Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, but that negative approach has run its course -- at least in the primary.  Expect Romney to tout his new tax reform plan quite a bit this evening.  It's new, it's good, and it gives him a strong narrative to discuss.  In that same vein, I don't anticipate many harsh attacks against his competitors from Romney tonight.  If anything, he'll reprise a major theme of his CPAC speech by highlighting the importance of executive experience.  The obvious subtext: "I have lots of it, none of these guys do."  By and large, though, he'll likely work to flip every question into an attack on President Obama, contrasting his vision for the country with the results Obama's failed leadership has produced.

Rick Santorum is the national frontrunner according to virtually every major poll.  Tonight will mark the first -- and as mentioned above, perhaps only -- GOP debate in which the spotlight will shine brightest on his podium.  Previous leaders of the pack have discovered that the media scrutiny that accompanies success can be intense.  Santorum is no fool; he realizes that a barrage of tough questions are likely headed his way, including many that may focus on frustratingly irrelevant topics.  I suspect we'll hear a lot about Santorum's religious outlook, his past comments on birth control, prenatal screenings, and homosexuality.  Santorum's challenge will be to answer these questions in such a way that eludes "gotchas," cheerfully explains his beliefs, avoids sanctimony, and convinces average voters that the caricature the Left and media will paint of him in a possible general election (knuckle-dragging, anti-women theocrat) don't comport with reality.  If he can accomplish this feat, he will help himself immensely.  If not, it could be a decisive evening in the wrong direction.

Newt Gingrich may be a pleasure to watch tonight.  His advisors say they're unleashing him with a "let Newt be Newt" approach.  This will supposedly involve eschewing attacks on his Republican brethren, which has been one of his least attractive elements of his campaign.  Flailing, bitter Newt isn't appealing.  Upbeat, GOP-good-cop, Obama-and-media-defying Newt is. Again relegated to bottom-tier status in most polling, Gingrich will cleverly circle back to the formula that vaulted him from an also-ran to the top of the heap in December (and again in South Carolina).  If that's the case, look out Democrats and moderators.  Mitt Romney couldn't be happier with this approach.  If Newt reminds some GOP voters why they liked him in the first place, he could reap a small bump of support, which would likely siphon votes away from Santorum.  The former Pennsylvania Senator might also appreciate a friendlier Newt, too.  If CNN's anchors get too carried away with slanted questions about Santorum's faith, Newt might jump in an act as his fellow Catholic's enforcer.

Ron Paul is in this thing for the long haul, and his strategy rarely shifts.  He'll be preaching the Ron Paul gospel every chance he gets.  But might he continue to help play spoiler?  Throughout the debate season, Paul hasn't hesitated to go after almost anyone on stage, with one notable exception: Mitt Romney.  Paul's campaign is running attack ads that only hit Santorum in Michigan.  Will this game of Romney/Paul game of patty-cake continue?

The Townhall/Hot Air editorial team will offer live coverage of the debate as it unfolds. Stay tuned after the debate for my recap -- we'll see if any of my pre-analysis is vindicated by events.