The remains of a Republican presidential field that has lost three major contenders in as many weeks will gather Monday night in Florida for a presidential debate that could again reshape a rapidly evolving race. Just one week after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s charged performance in a South Carolina debate gave him the momentum he needed to secure a landslide win in Saturday’s primary, the candidates will again form the circular firing squad, this time at an NBC News/St. Petersburg Times/National Journal debate that will provide the first measure of a suddenly redefined race.
The debate offers an opening for Gingrich to close some new deals, just as it offers former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (whom Newt now dismisses as a “very good salesman” hawking a “really weak product”) an chance to prove he can take a hit and keep on fighting. It also provides Rick Santorum (who now denounces his former House leader as “a very high-risk candidate) and Ron Paul (who simply calls Gingrich a “liar”) one more chance to avoid reseating at the kids table with Buddy Roemer.
This is a new campaign. This is a new debate. And the questions should reflect the changes that have taken place.
Instead of a rehash of old talking points or new gossip, the moderator and panelists for this debate should use the South Carolina results and the latest exit-poll data to pose fresh and meaningful questions.
Here are six approaches that suggest themselves—and that could force the candidates to say something that matters:
1. African-Americans make up a higher percentage of South Carolina’s population than in all but four states. The latest Census data says that African-Americans represent 28 percent of South Carolina’s population. Yet, according to exit polling, barely 1 percent of the participants in Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary were African-American. In general, what is the Republican Party doing wrong and, specifically, what are this year’s Republican presidential candidates doing wrong, when it comes to attracting African-American voters? Are there candidates, in particularly Newt Gingrich, who have made matters worse?
2. According to an analysis of exit polling data by the New York Times, “nearly two-thirds of the voters were evangelical or born-again Christians—slightly more than in 2008. And these voters came to the polls looking for a candidate who shared their religious beliefs. Three-quarters of evangelicals said that it mattered to them that a candidate share their religious beliefs.” Among the more than one-quarter of Republican primary voters who said that it “matters a great deal” that the candidate they vote for share their religious beliefs, 90 percent opposed the presumed front-runner in this race: Mitt Romney. Is that because Mr. Romney is a Mormon? If so, what can you say to the substantial portion of Republicans who seem to object to having a Mormon as their party’s presidential nominee?