Tuesday's GOP debate: Will it be the best one yet?

The GOP candidates have appeared on more stages than the road show of 'Cats.' But haven't the debates been great political theater so far? Tuesday's event shouldn't disappoint. 

Paul Sancya/AP
Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a Republican Presidential Debate at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich. Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011.

There’s a Republican presidential debate Tuesday night on CNN. Yes, we know it’s the 11th such showdown. And yes, the GOP candidates may have appeared on more stages than the road show of “Cats.” But haven’t the debates been great political theater so far? We think they have been, and we think this one might be the best yet.

That’s because two interesting trends are converging on DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, the venerable forum where the show will occur. One is the failure of the congressional "super committee" to strike a deficit agreement, and the partisan finger-pointing that’s followed.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that all of the candidates will try and hang this failure around the neck of the Obama administration. In that sense we’ll see them all work together for one of the first times this debate season, as opposed to taking jabs at each other.

(Yes, we know it’s supposed to be a national security debate, but we think Wolf Blitzer will still bring this up. Don’t you?)

Mitt Romney may go after Obama especially hard, since it is becoming increasingly apparent that he is running as if he already has the nomination locked up. For instance, on Tuesday Romney released his first television ad of the campaign, and it’s directed at the incumbent, not Rick Perry, Herman Cain, or Newt Gingrich.

“He promised he would fix the economy. He failed,” reads the ad’s intro.

Even Romney’s most vocal opponents within the party are beginning to try to come to terms with his likely success. At the conservative RedState blog, editor Erick Erickson wrote Tuesday that he expects Romney to be the nominee, and that Republicans will vote for him.

“But their energy will be tepid. He gives no one anything to get excited about except the makers of Silly Putty and hair products,” wrote Mr. Erickson.

Of course, the other trend is the rise of yet another champion of the anti-Mitt forces. We give you Newt Gingrich, front-runner.

Gingrich has risen to the front of the polls in large part because he’s fast on his feet in debates. But Gingrich may find that this time around, the going is tougher. 

That's because the moderators – whatever claims they make about evenhandedness – treat the frontrunners differently. Do you think moderators would have twiddled their thumbs, waiting for that third agency-to-be-cut that never came, if the candidate flubbing his lines was Rick Santorum instead of Rick Perry? No, they wouldn’t have. They’d have moved on. 

“There’s going to be a different standard for Gingrich’s performance now that he’s more than a marginal candidate. And his typical formula of attacking the moderator and disputing the premise of virtually every question may not be enough to sustain his position in the polls,” writes Alexander Burns today on Politico.

Of course, Gingrich’s long government experience and ability to rattle off facts faster than a Twitter feed may serve him well in a debate that’s supposed to focus on national security and foreign affairs. He won’t just know the name of Uzbekistan’s president – he’ll know when Uzbekistan was settled, and the amount of acreage it devotes to the growing of staple grains.

The stakes are high for Gingrich, writes polling analyst Nate Silver on his New York Times Five Thirty Eight blog. Right now, the GOP electorate judges Mitt Romney the most electable candidate. But nothing says “electability” like winning, and right now, as improbable as it would have seemed a few months ago, Gingrich is in a dead heat with Romney in Iowa polls.

If the ex-Speaker wins Iowa it would go a long way to answering the electability question. It would also likely lead to a fundraising splash.

“Win Iowa, and there is a real possibility that Mr. Gingrich is the Republican nominee,” writes Silver.

Of course, there are also other questions: Will Herman Cain have to answer another question about those sexual harassment allegations? Who will Michelle Bachmann attack? Will Jon Huntsman make more bad jokes? Will Ron Paul get ignored by the moderators?

The answers start coming at 8 p.m., Eastern time.

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