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 Mullings.com, 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.
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