2:22pm

Mon June 13, 2011
It's All Politics

GOP NH Debate: Romney Will Target Obama And Be Attacked Too

Monday evening's debate of Republican presidential candidates in New Hampshire will, unlike an earlier South Carolina edition, feature Mitt Romney, the GOP frontrunner.

And his presence raises interest in the debate scheduled to be shown on CNN at 8 pm ET.

A good fight is a great spectator sport and we can expect something of one Monday night. The other members of the crowded GOP field will at some point go after the former Massachusetts governor as unworthy to carry the Republican Party's mantle against President Obama.

All of which suggests this should be a good debate to live-blog which we will be doing here at the It's All Politics blog.

The debate will include Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor and his fellow Minnesotan Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite; Rep Ron Paul, the Libertarian with a loyal following; Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza; Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Rick Santorum, the former US senator from Pennsylvania who is popular with social conservatives. (CNN offers summaries on the debate participants.)

They'll likely attack him for a combination of strategic and ideological reasons. Trying to knock down a few pegs the candidate who's atop the polls is standard procedure in a crowded primary field as opponents try to narrow the gap between themselves and the front runner by raising doubts about the presumptive leader.

And Romney has real vulnerabilities which open him up to such attacks.

Everyone who follows U.S. politics knows by now that as Massachusetts governor Romney helped enact a state health care law with an individual mandate requiring most everyone to purchase health insurance.

Obama has said Romney's law was the model for the federal health care law so hated by conservative Republicans, especially those in the Tea Party movement.

Though Romney has defended himself by saying that he was merely acting to solve a state problem and that Obama, by contrast, was guilty of a massive federal usurpation of state power, many conservatives see that as a distinction without a difference.

Also, his opponents will no doubt either find a way to remind Republican voters of what bugs so many of them about him, to wit, his perceived inconstancy on issues.

In short, Romney has a reputation as a flip-flopper, switching views on abortion, immigration, gun control and gay rights, among other issues.

If Romney successfully parries the expected attacks with quickness and humor but also some steel, that could help him as it might indicate to voters that he can handle pressure well. It could also make him seem a more likable figure.

Deftly swatting away the expected barbs could also help Romney look presidential which is part of what he must hope to accomplish Monday night as the frontrunner.

To that end, if Romney employs the typical tactic of a frontrunner trying to get his party's nomination to take on a president of the other party, he will likely spend most of his time directing his fire at Obama, not his Republican competitors for the nomination. He wants voters to see them as irrelevant.

The debate will give Romney a chance, though not much of one because of the six other people on stage, to restate his theme that "Obama has failed America" through allegedly dubious economic policies. Romney can be expected to hammer on his private-sector experience as why voters should trust him more than Obama.

But he won't be able to spend as much time as he would like directing his attention at Obama since he'll likely have to defend his record as Massachusetts governor from the aforementioned attacks. The debate's moderators may force him on the defensive as well.

For a relatively unknown candidate like Pawlenty, the debate is a chance to raise his profile by being on the same stage as Romney.

Pawlenty has already signaled that he intends to make Romney's signing of the Massachusetts health care law an issue by referring to it on Sunday as "Obamneycare", a clever combination of Romney and "Obamacare" the disparaging term Republicans use for the Affordable Care Act.

The trick for Pawlenty will be to criticize Romney without seeming mean-spirited. That could turn off voters and Romney who, if he does become the GOP nominee, will be looking for a vice presidential nominee.

Of course, Obama will also be attacked lavishly Monday night as the candidates compete to get off the most memorable attack lines against the president.

The other candidates get to raise their stature to greater or lesser degrees by being on the same stage with Romney.

It's difficult to see a credible path to the nomination or the White House for Bachmann, Cain, Paul, Santorum and Gingrich.

Political consultant Pat Griffin, quoted by reporter Josh Rogers in a Morning Edition piece on Monday, called most of them "niche" candidates.

They may not have much of a chance of being president, but the attention they get through campaigning certainly raises their profiles, fires up their supporters, enables some of them to raise lots of money and get plenty of speaking invitations.

One of the debate's interesting sub-dramas will be how Gingrich deals with the wheels coming off his campaign. On Friday, Gingrich said his campaign would go on after his top campaign advisers quit and he's likely to continue on with that line.

But most of the experts believe his campaign has had the heart ripped out of it and that it is virtually dead. So watching him could be the equivalent of watching someone whistling past the graveyard.

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