Hooray for the Great 2012 Debates!

The complaint among commentators that there have been too many Republican debates seems to have evaporated after Las Vegas.

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The complaint among commentators that there have been too many Republican debates seems to have evaporated after Las Vegas. The chance to see the candidates fighting in person -- actual physical contact! -- instead of through press releases is irresistible, even for debate skeptics.

Leading up to Tuesday's debate, The Washington Post's Dan Balz wrote, "Once considered forums that only occasionally had a real effect on a nomination battle, the debates this year have been the defining feature of the contest." But there were still some complainers out there. Republican strategist Mike Murphy told Balz the debates have been "huge in the echo chamber and have made the early (and overrated) national polling gyrate, but meaningful impact in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is not yet known." Still, Murphy proceeded to tweet obsessively during the debate, concluding, "Passed 18,000 followers tonight. Nobody more surprised by that than me. Thanks to all who follow me."
It's a complete reversal of the conventional wisdom in 2008, when both parties had contested primaries and thus a seemingly interminable string of debates that few seemed to be watching. "Campaign 2008 is clearly suffering from debate fatigue -- long before most voters are truly ready to tune in," Balz wrote back then. "What once seemed to be a valuable development -- regular engagement on the part of the candidates -- has spun out of control in this campaign."

The debates this cycle have turned into full-fledged sporting events-cum-reality shows for the tweeting political class. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry got so mad at each other the Las Vegas debate was almost as exciting as a WWE Smackdown -- and maybe even less scripted. Perry was "jarringly more alive." Romney "channeled his inner Chris Christie." All the candidates have "lost their virginity now."

At the very end of the debate Tuesday, Newt Gingrich, even as he was scolding his rivals for getting too snippy and hurting their chances of defeating President Obama, called for even more debates -- a series of seven with Obama, each three hours long, with no moderator. Gingrich's top staff quit en masse last summer because he wanted to do all of the talking of a presidential campaign -- speeches, debates -- and none of the harder stuff, like shaking hands on Iowa farms. But quite unexpectedly, in some states the strategy has Gingrich polling ahead of Rick Perry -- the guy his staff quit to go work for. Rick Santorum needs the debates, too. He raised only $704,199 in the third quarter but spent $743,757. (By contrast, Perry raised $17 million, Romney $14 million.) Republicans might not be voting for Santorum with their money, but pundits are voting for his zingers. The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky says Santorum is "having his moment," because, "He floats like a butterfly around these stodgy people."

Which is why Santorum's spokesman, Hogan Gidley, told Politico's Emily Schultheis that having all these debates is fantastic. "These candidates are running for President of the United States, the highest office in the world ... It stands to reason that we have many debates and many opportunities for the candidates to outline their visions for the future -- and face criticism." Chip Saltsman, who ran Mike Huckabee's 2008 campaign, said that for Huckabee, "Every debate was our only chance at national oxygen, because we were nobody ... The only time we were going to be on primetime was on those debates." Huckabee lost in 2008, of course. He didn't have enough campaign staffers on the ground to make the most of his victory in Iowa.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.