GOP Debate Preview: Hey, We're Not So Bad

What GOP 2012 candidates are looking to prove tonight

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With so many Republicans dissatisfied with the current lineup of their party's 2012 presidential candidates, the participants in Monday night's primary debate will not be showing off their special talents, but proving they can rise above their greatest weaknesses. Tim Pawlenty has to show he's not boring. Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann have to show they're not airheaded flakes. Newt Gingrich has to prove he's not a vanity candidate after he failed to convince even his own staff that he was serious about his candidacy. And Mitt Romney has to show he's not mortally wounded by health care.

Tim Pawlenty: Not That Nice

The former governor has been criticized as uncharismatic, boring, Mr. Minnesota Nice. Pawlenty's been working on seeming less meek by stepping up his attacks on Mitt Romney. On Sunday, Pawlenty tied President Obama's health care overhaul to the Massachusetts law signed by Romney that inspired it--blending the two bills into a nifty portmanteau: "Obamneycare." Although "Pawlenty is Romney's most formidable competitor," Politico's Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman explain, "he is not the most eye-catching one--that distinction likely goes to Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain, two camera-ready tea party candidates beloved by the cable news audience." Pawlenty didn't shine in the first Republican debate, so "If another debate comes and goes without Pawlenty putting serious political points on the board, voters--and more importantly, donors--are going to start wondering if he really has what it takes to play at this level."

Mitt Romney: Not Done in By Health Care

Romney skipped the first primary debate in South Carolina, and his appearance Monday night in New Hampshire will give his 2012 rivals a chance to tag-team their attacks on him. The former Massachusetts governor will certainly face pointed questions about Romneycare, which Pawlenty, Bachmann, and Santorum have criticized. NBC's First Read wonders, "Who will come under more fire at tonight’s debate--President Obama or Romney? Early presidential debates rarely include direct attacks or heated exchanges, because the candidates all are trying to make a good first (or second) impression." But this campaign has gotten off to a late start, and the 2008 campaign showed that  "the pile-on is the only effective way to stop a front-runner."

Michele Bachmann: Not Sarah Palin

It's hard not to see a little bit of sexism in the fact that Bachmann is constantly compared to Palin, but the Minnesota congresswoman has to fight the impression nonetheless. Her campaign's strategy appears to be portraying Bachmann as someone who's just as "attractive" and Tea Party-friendly as Palin, but smarter. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait points to Bachmann's interview with the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore as an example of her "establishing her intellectual bona fides."

Moore writes:

Ms. Bachmann is best known for her conservative activism on issues like abortion, but what I want to talk about today is economics. When I ask who she reads on the subject, she responds that she admires the late Milton Friedman as well as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. "I'm also an Art Laffer fiend—we're very close," she adds. "And [Ludwig] von Mises. I love von Mises," getting excited and rattling off some of his classics like "Human Action" and "Bureaucracy." "When I go on vacation and I lay on the beach, I bring von Mises."

Chait responds, "You've got some highbrow names to establish gravitas (Friedman, von Mises) along with some disciples of voodoo economics (Laffer, Kemp) to excite a supply-sider like Moore and his audience. That's pretty much a bullseye. ... Bachmann is a potent combination of substantively radical and politically shrewd..."

Newt Gingrich: Not DOA

Gingrich's campaign staff fired him on Thursday, quitting en masse after they realized that Gingrich did not want to commit to the countless hours of grassroots campaigning a presidential campaign typically requires. Politico writes, "Gingrich’s task now is tougher, since everything he does will be interpreted in light of the fact that he’s on the brink of political death. If he goes on the attack, he’ll look cornered and desperate. If he sticks to a careful and newsless script, analysts will simply ignore him. Being forced to give time-limited questions won’t make life any easier for the endlessly talkative Gingrich."

Rick Santorum: Not Just a Gross Thing That Comes Up When You Google Him

Slate's Dave Weigel flags this story as "Front Pages You Don't Want to See." Sex columnist Dan Savage led a campaign to give "Santorum" a sexual definition in response to the former senator's social conservatism, including his opposition to gay marriage. The NSFW definition now dominates Santorum's Google results. But Santorum's Internet problem highlights the perception that he's a niche candidate focused mostly on social issues.

Herman Cain: Not Clueless

The pizza magnate has shown humility and honesty when he told the National Review that he doesn't yet have "all the facts" on Afghanistan. He also flubbed an answer on Israel and Palestine when it was clear he didn't know what "right of return" referred to. Still, Cain will have to offer some serious foreign policy proposals if he doesn't want to be seen as just the latest silly-season candidate, Politico writes. Perhaps he's trying to do that in an interview with The Daily Caller's Alex Pappas, in which he explains that being CEO of Godfather's Pizza would help him make tough foreign policy choices. Cain explains:

"When I first became president of Godfather’s Pizza, there was a very dangerous part of town in the black community where I wouldn’t allow my restaurants to deliver because we had kids beat, robbed...

And I said ‘if I won’t send my son over there, I’m not going to send someone else’s son or daughter over there.’ Last week in Omaha, Nebraska, that same neighborhood that I wouldn’t deliver in--that they are delivering in now--a Pizza Hut driver was killed. ...

When I get ready to make a decision relative to foreign policy I will make a decision based upon as if I’m sending my own kids, sons and daughters, into war. I’m not going to do that lightly."

Ron Paul: Not Fringe

Ron Paul has a very dedicated fan base and can raise a lot of money. But is there any way to convince reporters and skeptical voters that he's not a fringe candidate when he says the U.S. been illegally using counterfeit currency for 40 years?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.