Elections

In debate, Santorum must prove electability

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter

On Wednesday night, a newly remodeled Republican field faces off in the first debate in almost a month. Rick Santorum, now the front-runner, will have to make the case for his electability; Mitt Romney, lagging somewhat in momentum, will try to use the opportunity to regain his footing.

Santorum is facing his first debate as a front-runner, and with that comes heightened scrutiny on the debate stage. Having gained in popularity, he now needs to prove that he can close the deal by demonstrating that he can handle the spotlight, and showing that he is actually electable.

“He should be the focus of the other candidates and the moderators,” pointed out Trey Grayson, the director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. “How will he respond? Will he say anything too extreme? Can he project an air of electability?”

“Right now, people are operating on an image of Rick Santorum, and they like that image, but he could easily disabuse voters of that image if he performs poorly at the debate,” said Republican consultant Patrick Hynes.

With the Republican base, that means to keep on doing what he has been doing, but the big issue for Santorum will be to show that he is electable in a general election.

His very conservative views on social issues have been a primary focus of news coverage in recent days, something that veteran political strategist Chip Felkel points out would likely hurt him in a general election. (RELATED: Full coverage of the Santorum campaign)

“While his hard-core statements play well with primary voters, he is now in a position to have to act like a contender, not a pretender,” said Felkel.

“This is a real like-able and lead-able test for him,” said Republican consultant Dan Hazelwood.

For Romney, it’s an opportunity to get his mojo back after a few weeks of falling in the polls.

In past debates, strategists have opined that Romney’s best bet was just to stay above the fray and emerge unscathed. But on Wednesday night “Romney cannot coast,” Felkel said. “He must be on the offensive to stem the momentum of Santorum.”

The biggest concern Republican voters have about Romney is his perceived inconsistency on conservative values, while Santorum, by contrast, is infrequently challenged on his conservatism.

To combat Romney’s image problem with conservatives, Hardin said, he “needs to have a commanding performance talking about Republican values and why we need to get Barack Obama out of office and get this country back on course and what is involved in doing that. He seems to have lost that,” Hardin added.

Hynes suggested that “the best path for him to [regain his footing] would be to contrast his steady brand of conservatism with Rick Santorum’s erratic, dangerous, over the top brand of conservatism which we’ve seen on full display in the last four or five days,” referring to some of the views on social issues that Santorum has expressed, including his opposition to prenatal testing and doubts about President Barack Obama’s religion.

Directly attacking Santorum may not be the best way to do that, however.

“Romney succeeds when he looks like the front-runner and the most electable candidate in the general election,” said Hardin. “He’s not going to succeed if he looks like the guy in second place who has to take shots at Rick Santorum in the debate.”

For Gingrich, who has been all but sidelined by Santorum’s surge, one of his signature dynamic debate performances is his best chance to get back into the spotlight as a credible Romney alternative.

In addition to a very “strong performance,” Grayson said, “He also needs to show discipline by focusing the majority of his attacks on Obama and Santorum, not Romney. Attacking Romney too often will be viewed as petty and vindictive. He needs to get back to being the main anti-Romney candidate and must take back that position from Santorum. Voters need to picture him debating Obama in the fall and being pleased with that image.”

But even an award-winning performance may not be enough to salvage his campaign.

“It appears that unless he has some big moment, that ship has passed. His negatives have caught up with him and it looks like it really has become a two man race,” Felkel said.

Hardin suggested that while it “gives him a little bit more momentum and more confidence” due to the resulting media attention, it’s unlikely to “change the landscape of the race much at all at this point.”

But in such a volatile race which has seen a new front-runner every few weeks, Hynes opined, anything could happen.

“I think this thing is so unsettled that Gingrich could turn in one of his classic debate performances and almost immediately, in one night, upend the race again,” he said.

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