Last night may be the last primary debate for quite a while. The Democrats are weeping. The Republican insiders are breathing a huge sigh of relief.
If pundits had predicted last year that a 20-plus debate season stretching over 10 months would have resulted in Republicans becoming weaker, not stronger, they would have been greeted with serious quizzical skepticism, if not outright ridicule.
All this exposure, all this opportunity to attack President Obama—and unanswered to boot—was hard to resist. And what a chance they had to advance a program of ideas, a new vision for America. Not only that, but the strong would rise to the top and the weak would fall by the wayside.
What an opportunity for a candidate to put his or her weaknesses behind, to stress their positives, and move into a general election mode.
The example many cited was the Obama-Clinton period in 2007-2008 when the field started large and winnowed down quickly. Certainly, this was a tremendous benefit to the Obama campaign as it unfolded, and he and Sen. Hillary Clinton went through that grueling winter and spring. He emerged stronger and a Pew poll showed that 80 percent of Democrats felt very positively about their final two candidates.
But history did not come close to repeating itself in 2011-2012. The Republican debates have not been kind to the candidates, to the party, or to their supporters. The candidates have done their very best to out-right-wing each other. Whether it was on the issues of immigration, contraceptives, tax breaks for the wealthy, or abolishing the EPA, the Department of Education and, ah, what was that third one, again? The candidates worked overtime on stage to appeal to the narrowest of Tea Party supporters.
Though it was hard to exceed the extremism of the candidates, the audiences at the debates were way over the top. Booing a gay soldier when he came on to ask a question, booing Brian Williams when he had the nerve to ask about the death penalty, calling out Gov. Rick Perry when he had the audacity to support education for Hispanic students. The applause lines with these 99 percent white audiences of Tea Party supporters drove the TV audiences to form distinctly negative images.
The same Pew poll that measured the Republicans' positive feelings about their candidates was about half what the Democrats found four years ago, in the 40 percent range. And independents, who have been pretty tough on President Obama, did not like what they saw over the last year with these debates.
That is why many Republicans are so distraught with the current field that they are willing to put out the casting call for another candidate. The hand wringing among Republican operatives has grown with each passing month. If this campaign season goes on much longer, the outcry will only grow stronger.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney has the chance to put this away by close of business on Super Tuesday, thanks to his huge money advantage and organizational strength. If he manages to win Arizona and Michigan, and sweeps most states on March 6, there will be resignation in Republican-land.
But if former Sen. Rick Santorum does well and muddies the waters in the coming two weeks, watch out. Anything can happen and probably will. Heaven forbid, more debates!