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I want to give two cheers for the televised debates between the Republican presidential candidates. You can think what you want of the quality and formats of the 11 already held – the next due in Iowa on Saturday and the threat of one “moderated” by Donald Trump in his Apprentice mode after Christmas – but it seems to me they have served two purposes, both beneficial.
First, they have disproved, at least temporarily, the conventional wisdom that money is everything in politics. Second, and interconnected, they have sorted out the field, though not yet irrevocably. Interestingly, they have earned decent ratings, even when shown on truly obscure networks.
This batch of candidates has raised about one-third less money than a comparably crowded field had this time four years ago. It follows they have spent less – on advertising, organisation, staff, etc – for the simple reason it costs next to nothing to appear in debates, a pure form of free media, though with its own pitfalls. This has enabled candidates without deep pockets to soldier on, though Herman Cain has departed (more because of sex allegations than his spoken words). Michele Bachmann, the wild congresswoman from Minnesota, Jon Huntsman, the earnest former Utah governor, and Rick Santorum, the pious former senator, have at least been able to speak to the masses rather than to a few in the coffee shops of Iowa and New Hampshire.
The one-man bands – the former House speaker Newt Gingrich and the libertarian congressman Ron Paul – have flourished in the debates just by being provocative, which is their style anyway and is guaranteed to get the conservative audiences, already pretty rabid, hootin’ and hollerin’. Mr Gingrich has even taken his singular, if peculiar, verbal talents to the next level and, improbably, leads the pack.
But those with loot to spare, such as the Texas governor Rick Perry, have found that money can’t buy you love if you are unable to string some coherent thoughts together. Apparently the most tailor-made to challenge the well-oiled and financed Mitt Romney, Mr Perry was not written off after poor initial debate performances because his money still bought him a seat at the table. It may yet, but subsequent flubs have left him picking up scraps under it.
Mr Romney has used the debates to demonstrate that he is a much improved campaigner, though without yet convincing the Republican base that he is not a moderate sheep dressed up as a conservative wolf. But he is no longer the presumptive favourite and has shown signs of getting ratty under pressure. The next debates, more than his money on hand, offer him the best chance to bounce back, or for the relatively campaign-penniless Mr Gingrich to blow it.
Show us the money
Of course, this blessed absence of the influence of money will not last. President Barack Obama, who declined public funding in 2008 because he could raise much more elsewhere, will have bigger truckloads of it next year. So may whoever emerges as his opponent, given the intense dislike Republican donors have for the president.
Enabled by a Supreme Court that has ruled that anybody can give as much as they like to any person or cause, interest groups such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads on the right and Priorities USA on the other side could spend half as much again as the estimated $2bn of the last election cycle. Reclusive billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Art Pope of North Carolina will doubtless be splashing out.
It is comforting to think that a fool and his money are easily parted, one reason, perhaps, why Republican candidate fundraising to date has been so modest. It is one thing to fire up the Tea Party, as Ms Bachmann and Mr Cain briefly did with their simple slogans, but that is not where the money is, nor does it constitute national electability.
Still, there remain a few weeks to sit back and observe the Republican field in debate action, unfiltered by professionally produced and often specious political advertising. Mr Gingrich, who, like the blind squirrel finding nuts, sometimes gets some things right, wants to debate Mr Obama seven times in the campaign proper, like Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas did in 1858. Even in the age of reality television, that might be stretching it.