“What To Watch For” at GOP Prez Debate

Questions, moderator “matter,” WaPo (alone?) notes

Folks who wish to be told “what to look for” during tonight’s Republican presidential debate are in luck: pretty much every news organization known to humankind has a what to watch for offering in advance of the CNN/WMUR/New Hampshire Union Leader-sponsored debate this evening in Manchester, New Hampshire. Such pre-game stories are a staple, by now, of campaign coverage. One can read these “what to look for” stories as, yes, guides to what to look for during the debate (because, presumably, these are important issues and dynamics and questions to consider) but also, of course, as guides to what to look for in the post-debate press coverage (read: “what we’re looking for).

And the consensus? Some things to “look for” this time:

Will Romney reinforce his supposed front-runner status and who will emerge as his strongest challenger? Or, as Politico has it, “Who swings hardest at Mitt Romney?” According to Politico (tonight’s Politico headlines today!): “There are three big headlines that could come out of the debate: ‘Opponents pile on Romney’; ‘Opponents steer clear of attacking Romney’; and ‘Candidate X attacks Romney.’” CNN and the New York Times go with “Pawlenty vs. Romney,” with CNN noting that “for months, we in the media have speculated that Tim Pawlenty is setting himself up to be the alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney” (and so we’ll be looking for our speculation to be proven right tonight).

How/whether Newt Gingrich restores confidence in his campaign in light of the rash of recent staff resignations. “If he goes on the attack,”
writes Politico of Gingrich, “he’ll look cornered and desperate. If he sticks to a careful and newsless script, analysts will simply ignore him.” (Gingrich can’t won’t win in Politico’s post-debate coverage).

How’s Michele Bachmann look? Both Politico and the New York Times task Michele Bachmann (alone, apparently) with having to “look presidential” tonight. Per the Times: “[Bachmann’s] challenge Monday night? To look presidential.” Politico asks: “Can Michele Bachmann look presidential?” (Meanwhile, the Huffington Post proposes we should watch whether Bachmann “steal[s] the show.”)

Observing that all the Republican contenders “agree that President Obama must go,” CBS News wonders will any of them “unveil any… proposals” at the debate? Because Republican candidates unveiling policy proposals at the debate might give viewers concrete information (ideas!) on which to make decisions? No. Because Republican candidates unveiling policy proposals at the debate might catch other Republican candidates off-guard! Per CBS:

What happens if, for example, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul announce a significant policy plan and the other candidates don’t have a response?

(Entertaining TV, I guess, “happens?”)

Finally, points to the Washington Post’s The Fix blog for giving a nod to something overlooked in other “what to look for” accounts: the importance of the person asking the questions, the questions asked (and, I’d add, the follow-up questions asked). Per the Post:

The moderator (CNN’s John King) and the questions he asks matter. So does his willingness to let the candidates bend the rules a bit to foster some actual debate. Romney is hoping for a heavy economic focus, while anyone not named “Romney” wants health care in general — and the Massachusetts law in particular — to be Topic A. Both issues will obviously be discussed. But at what length? And by whom? Debates do tend to be a series of canned statements. Occasionally, however, there are genuine moments where a candidate’s true character is revealed. Political junkies should root for as many of those moments as possible.

Even non-“junkies” should, at the risk of being disappointed, “root” for “genuine moments” that go beyond talking points to actually reveal something.

Speaking of debate questions and moderators, a few CJR flashbacks: read why CJR’s Mike Hoyt dubbed an April 2008 presidential debate “dispiriting,” “among the worst, if not the bottom of the lot” and put the blame “largely” on moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of ABC News; read Megan Garber’s January 2008 critique of a Brian Williams- and Tim Russert-helmed debate headlined, “Desperately seeking soundbite;” and recall what happened in October 2008, in my opinion, when debate moderator Tom Brokaw was a stickler for the debate “rules.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.