As Republicans gather in Florida for Thursday's Fox News-Google presidential debate in Orlando, the contest remains very fluid, raising the stakes (and hopes) for all nine candidates.
The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Texas Gov. Rick Perry now leading with 28%, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 20%. No other candidate is in double digits.
At this point four years ago, Rudy Giuliani led the GOP field with 28%, trailed by former Sen. Fred Thompson at 23% and John McCain at 15%, with everyone else in single digits. When the dust finally cleared, neither Messrs. Giuliani nor Thompson was a serious contender—and Govs. Romney and Mike Huckabee pressed Mr. McCain hard before he prevailed. All of which means the 2012 Republican sweepstakes is far from over.
Republicans are increasingly enthusiastic about the field (last month's poll by the AP and the GfK market research company says two-thirds "are pleased" with it, up from just half in June). But they appear slower to lock in and quicker to change their commitment. They're more concerned than usual about getting the right candidate with the record, passion, appeal, fund-raising and fortitude to make President Barack Obama a one-termer.
Normally, if a candidate makes a mistake, most supporters excuse him or her and many undecided voters are slow to form judgments. Now everyone offers a verdict as quickly as it takes Olympic judges to raise their placards. Sometimes those scores punish a contender so badly it is difficult or even impossible to recover.
So tonight's debate presents opportunities and dangers for each candidate. Mr. Perry has had two okay-to-mediocre debate performances, with the second regarded as weaker. This is dangerous, since much of his support is based on what people believe him to be rather than what they know him to be.
Mr. Perry would therefore be wise to continue pivoting away from arguing that Social Security should be turned over to the states and instead make a compelling case, as he started to do in the last debate, for its reform. More importantly, Mr. Perry needs to change the dynamic of the debates, in which he's been (in his words) the piñata.
Just as Mr. Romney has put Mr. Perry on defense on Social Security, Mr. Perry must put Mr. Romney on defense over health care. That's because in part by his questioning Mr. Perry's views on Social Security, Mr. Romney has closed on the Texas governor in recent polls, getting to within three points of Mr. Perry in South Carolina, for example.
Mr. Romney has been crisp, sharp, reassuring and in command during the debates. He must build on this by continuing to press Mr. Perry on Social Security. The trick for Mr. Romney, though, is to avoid having his attacks undermine his own conservative credentials. Mr. Romney also needs a stronger explanation for his Massachusetts health-care law than the 10th Amendment. He started offering one when questioned by Sen. Jim DeMint in the South Carolina forum earlier this month, saying there are big differences between what he did and what Mr. Obama did.
Mr. Romney also needs to light a spark among GOP voters. Most like him and see him as competent and capable. What's missing is energy and excitement. Offering this to them in a way consistent with his personality and record may not be easy.
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann must repair the enormous damage created by her post-debate comment last week that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. There's simply no evidence that's true and she was rightly blasted from every quarter for saying it. Ms. Bachmann has at times shown herself to be a formidable debater. She better be again tonight or she may not remain competitive in Iowa. And if she doesn't win Iowa, her quest is over.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has, along with Mr. Romney, been the most consistently impressive debater. Getting into scraps with other candidates has helped, and he's had strong, even Reaganesque, moments on foreign policy. His challenge tonight is to get a shot at Iowa by shouldering aside Ms. Bachmann as the social conservative favorite.
But the economy will remain the election's No. 1 issue. The strength and fluency of candidates in offering a compelling agenda for growth, jobs, fiscal discipline and reform will eventually play the biggest role in settling the contest.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, September 21, 2011.