Debates have had consequences this time around
October 18th, 2011
03:02 PM ET
11 years ago

Debates have had consequences this time around

Las Vegas, Nevada (CNN) - In a city where fortunes are won and lost, there's a safe bet about Tuesday night's CNN Western Republican debate: It will influence the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

The debate in Las Vegas is the fifth showdown since Labor Day, and the eighth overall this cycle. And while the number of debates might normally dilute their impact, just the opposite appears to be happening – debates this cycle have had consequences, contributing critical moments to the nomination battle and influencing national polling in the Republican horse race.

Programming note: GOP presidential candidates next face off at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, October 18, in the CNN Western Republican Presidential Debate in Las Vegas, Nevada. Submit your questions for the debate here.

In the days leading up to the June 13 CNN/WMUR/New Hampshire Union Leader debate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was criticizing the health care law passed in Massachusetts when Mitt Romney was governor, comparing it to and calling it the inspiration for the national health care plan signed into law last year by President Barack Obama. Pawlenty termed it "Obamney-care." But Pawlenty failed to go after Romney on the issue at the debate, even when given the opportunity by CNN's John King, the moderator.

"The Pawlenty experience should make it clear that these debates do matter. [Pawlenty's] campaign was essentially over when he wouldn't take King's bait on the 'Obamney-care' issue," said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who advised Fred Thompson during his 2008 GOP presidential bid, and who is the author of, an online column.

"The fact that the debate took place on June 13 and there were no other joint appearances scheduled until August 11 - two months later - meant that Pawlenty's 'timid' response stuck with him until the next debate," Galen added.

While Pawlenty did attack Romney in that Iowa debate, the damage was already done and he dropped out of race days later after a poor showing at a crucial straw poll in the Hawkeye State.

Fast forward to late September when Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who launched his campaign in mid-August, surged to the top of the polls. An uneven performance at a debate in Orlando, Florida, followed two days later by a poor showing at a much-watched straw poll in the Sunshine State, sparked a dramatic decline for Perry in the polls.

"Debates are disproportionally influential this cycle," said says former George W. Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who's also a GOP strategist and a CNN political contributor. "Unlike previous years when candidates were better known and had solidified support, this year no one's support is solid. So debates are shaping opinions like never before. This year it's a wide open cast of characters."

"Pawlenty was proof of how influential these debates have been," Fleischer added.

And it seems that voters are watching. This time around ratings research indicates that almost twice as many viewers are tuning into the early primary debates compared to four years ago.

A Pew poll released earlier this month indicated that about a third of Republicans say they have watched a GOP presidential debate so far this year, with more than half of Republicans who support the tea party movement saying they have tuned in to a debate. According to the survey, around four in 10 Republicans said the debates have led them to change their minds about the candidate they were backing, and that figure's even higher among tea party supporters.

"At a critical moment for our country and economy, voters are getting to know the GOP candidates as well or better than they know our president. These debates have been great for voters and the country," said GOP strategist and CNN political contributor Alex Castellanos.

- Follow Paul Steinhauser on Twitter: @PSteinhauserCNN

Also see:

Iowa caucuses to be held January 3

Paul proposes cutting $1 trillion in first year

Cain: 'I haven't learned to be politically correct'

Hispanic caucus chairman rips Cain's border fence "joke"

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. John

    Vegas great place for them to show off how they can gamble on are fate

    October 18, 2011 04:45 pm at 4:45 pm |
  2. DJ

    I'd like the debaters to know that the issues surrounding the Federal Reserve and Keynesian Economics aren't going to magically go out of the American citizens minds. As seen by the various styles of protests around the country, America is waking up. The loser in these debates will be the candidate that doesn't address the issue of printing money backed by nothing; and the inflation caused by Keynesians plus on top of that, QE. Republicans don't want a substitute Obama.

    October 18, 2011 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  3. Erick

    Herman Cain And Mitt Romney Used Campaign Funds To Enrich Themselves And Their Associates

    October 18, 2011 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  4. The King

    The only difference between any of these imbeciles is size of the landslide they'll be under after our country re-elects President Obama to his second term.

    October 18, 2011 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  5. jrcnnjr

    The LAST thing the U.S. needs is a Republican (aka ‘RepubliKKKTEAlibanNUT’) for President. NONE of these Bigoted Greedy Candidates can be TRUSTED and they seem willing to say anything and use anyone, in order to get elected with their unconscionable ignorant policies. Below is the Candidate list:

    *Romney (aka ‘Sybil’ or ‘The Three Faces of Eve’) Blatant FLIP FLOPPER – NO principles and weak – speaks out of both sides of his mouth.
    *Cain (aka ‘Charlatan Con Artist’ ) – NO integrity or self-respect.
    *Bachmann – (aka ‘Kook‘) – Even CRAZY would run away from her.
    *Perry (aka Peanut Brain) – Slick used car salesman mentality . . . Selling ‘LEMONS’.
    *Huntsman (aka ‘Follower/not a Leader‘) – Bus would be gone by the time he got to the station.
    *Paul (aka ‘Government Destruction‘) – Every man for himself mentality.
    *Gingrich (aka Mentally Challenged) – Sill living and clinging to the past (ie. 1950’s)
    *Santorum (aka ‘Pathetic‘) – Makes Bush look sane . . .

    October 18, 2011 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  6. carlos

    I expect fair time for every candidate, not focus in just Rommey or Cain (CNN, Fox candidates). WE THE PEOPLE WANT TO HEAR MORE OF RON PAUL. Give him the respect he deserve because most of the people like him. Stop hidding his popularity, he is the people's candidate.

    October 18, 2011 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  7. Captain America

    All I know is that I'm voting for Ron Paul in 2012 because he makes the most sense. He also predicted the housing bubble back in 2003. He stated in 1999 that we were liable and inviting terrorist attacks because of our involvement in the middle east. In the 3rd quarter he got more donations from active members of the military than Obama and the GOP candidates combined.

    I don't agree with him on everything, but he makes sense to me. And unlike Obama, this guy can make change by making sense.

    October 18, 2011 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  8. MCJNY

    This is so pointless. None of these candidates has a clue or wants to discuss, in depth, anything of substance. It's one long commercial. How about asking some real questions like 1. What regulations are causing job loss? 2. Are they federal, state, local or international? 2. What is your detailed approach to tax reform and what kind of blowback can the american people expect 3. If obama is re-elected, what contribution will you bring to helping america re-emerge as a healthy economy? 4. Who are some of the cabinet members that you have in mind to take over for the existing executive branch, if elected? Now that would be great to hear some real answers to real questions.

    October 18, 2011 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  9. Silent Majority

    LOL @ Headline: "These Other Debates Were Nothing!" But then again, it is all entertainment. None of these people have a chance. Obama 2012, because what are we going to do with these other people??

    October 18, 2011 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  10. WoI Admin

    This debate may as well be called:

    Who wants to lose to Obama in 2012?

    October 18, 2011 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  11. Tim in WA

    It's hard to be interested in the debates when you are living from pay check to pay check, little or no food in the house, medical bills up to your earlobes and no hope of digging out any time soon. So much for the "American Dream" promised by the current resident of the Oval Office when he was elected. I'm an Independent. I have not watched a single one of these debates, because none of the candidates are believable. Talk is cheap. Like any politician, all of the candidates will promise you the moon until they get into office, then do whatever they want after they are elected. I'm not really that thrilled about the Democratic side either. The current leadership in DC has promised a lot, but delivered little. I'm disillusioned, disgusted and disappointed with the entire system. I wish we could fire everyone in DC and start from scratch!

    October 18, 2011 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  12. Cazart

    Each one of them takes turns showing off just how ill-prepared, ill-informed and aggressively anti-intellectual they are...and yet STILL no one wants to nominate poor Romney. It's the funniest show on TV.

    October 18, 2011 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  13. Telchristina

    Who cares who wins or lost a debate?? Obama was a slick debater and see what we got for the past 4 years? Voters want actions not words!

    Rick Perry and Mitt Romney will be GOP’s choices in the end. No chances for the rest of them

    October 18, 2011 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
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