With just 26 days until the Iowa Caucuses, the stakes are high for the two Republican presidential candidate debates coming soon to a TV near you.
Both debates will be nationally-televised. The first, this Saturday in Des Moines, will air on ABC. The second, on Thursday the 15th in Sioux City, will air on the FOX News Channel.
Newt Gingrich is perceived as the new front-runner in Iowa. He has said the multitude of debates this campaign season has helped his candidacy, because likely Republican voters have been paying attention like never before.
“The debates have helped them to see the candidates without editing,” Gingrich said during a recent Radio Iowa interview.
Brian Kennedy, Mitt Romney’s Iowa campaign co-chair, suggests the race here in Iowa is “wide-open” because polls show more than 60 percent of voters are willing to shift their allegiance to another candidate.
“I suspect we’ll have these two debates in early December and after that the voters will move into decision-making mode,” Kennedy says.
To influence that decision-making, the Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Perry campaigns are airing a barrage of television and radio advertising, some targeted directly at Gingrich. Michele Bachmann says that’s one reason voters may “come back home” to her on January 3.
“Maybe they didn’t know, for instance, about Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich’s background of being for the individual mandate,” Bachmann said late this afternoon during a meeting with The Cedar Rapids Gazette’s editorial board.
Ron Paul spoke briefly with Radio Iowa this afternoon about his own ad targeting Gingrich: “I have to expose (Gingrich) for what he’s been doing all these years. That’s all we’re doing, trying to present the facts.”
The question is: will these candidates take Gingrich to task on policy or directly question his multiple marriages during the debates? An Iowa pastor who has endorsed Rick Santorum has sent a video link via email and text to thousands of Iowans. The filmmaker known as “Molitov” Mitchell concludes his screed against Gingrich with this:
“If Newt Gingrich can betray a woman who has sworn her love and loyalty to him for the rest of her life not once but twice, what makes you think he won’t betray you, the faceless voter in a sea of faceless voters?”
Some Iowa voters seem to be urging the candidates to take that criticism directly to Gingrich. Margaret Sabin of Mason City was part of a recent telephone town hall meeting with Romney and she was blunt.
“You have not been married three times,” Sabin told Romney, “and we really appreciate that.”
Sabin has been married for 55 years. Mitt and Ann Romney have been married 42 years.
“I think you and your wife have done a wonderful job,” Sabin told Romney. “And we salute you for staying with the same woman all of those years.”
Gingrich has said he’ll remain above the fray and stay positive, but if he’s directly attacked on the debate stage by a rival, can he do that? Former Iowa Congressman Greg Ganske has given Gingrich this advice about keeping his cool.
“I and other friends have advised Newt that, ‘You need to pace yourself. You need to get your rest,'” Ganske says. “‘Then you’re less likely to say something off the cuff.'”
This Saturday’s debate on ABC is co-sponsored by The Des Moines Register and The Republican Party of Iowa. It will begin at eight p.m.