Republican hopefuls faced off at Monday’s GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire, after which most pundits voted front-runner Mitt Romney best in show. William Crotty, the Thomas P O’Neill professor of political science at Northeastern and expert in presidential elections, explains Republicans‘ primary campaign issues, the tactics used by presidential candidates to stand out in a debate and why Romney is leading the GOP field, for now.
What issues will Republicans focus on in pre-election debates, and do they differ from Democrats’ priorities – in particular, those of the Obama Administration?
There is a divide among Republicans. The major issues of the campaign year will be jobs and the economy, two areas where Mitt Romney happens to excel — he has successfully come out early and made these issues the cornerstone of his campaign. Although the other candidates touched on economic issues, they’ve focused on social, moral and religious issues to appeal to their Republican base in the primaries and to Tea Party members. These platforms and “Romneycare” are Romney’s weaknesses. But if he wins the nomination, and has a well organized, media-driven, well-funded and highly focused campaign, the economy and jobs will be the concerns that dominate in the general election.
The Democrats have a problem. The economy is President Obama’s area of weakness. He has not addressed it adequately — case in point: a continuing nine percent national unemployment rate, home foreclosures at record highs and a sluggish recovery. Obama cautions patience, as he has throughout his time in office, and is attempting to win over Wall Street and the business community, which will be difficult if Romney is the candidate. He has a well-organized, experienced, professional and very well funded campaign. He needs to defend his record in office. His hope is that one of the social conservatives wins the nomination. If so this this presents him with targets to attack and should make Obama the clear frontrunner. At present Obama and Romney are close in the polls with Romney actually slightly ahead in several.
As we may have seen some of last night, what tactics do candidates use in early debates to standout against the competition?
The Republican candidates need to establish name recognition, introduce themselves to the electorate, present a coherent policy program, build a campaign organization, present themselves as “presidential” and define their appeal to their constituency of greatest strength. Ron Paul is a libertarian and has a well-defined constituency. Herman Cain is an ego candidate, unknown and with no chance of success. The others are different shades of social conservatives from Michelle Bachmann to Tim Pawlenty. They will be fighting each other for the same voters, all to Romney’s benefit.
In your opinion, who emerged as strongest Republican candidate from this debate?
Romney did exactly what he had to do and did it well. In a state like New Hampshire that is far more concerned with jobs and the economy than social and fundamentalist issues, he solidified his front-runner status and began to build his national appeal. In a poll published immediately prior to the debate, Romney had a little over 40 percent of New Hampshire’s Republican support — no other candidate has as much as 10 percent. With this debate performance, he helped himself in the short- and long-run.
Michelle Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite, made an effective entrance onto the national stage and may have kept Sarah Palin out of the race. The other potential frontrunner, Tim Pawlenty, who has received publicity from his family finances and his previous marital history, needs to refine and refocus his message and his delivery, given his tentativeness on some questions. Right now, it looks like Romney will maintain the lead with Bachmann adding some life to the race if she can organize the conservative Tea Party Republicans effectively.