Tonight’s Republican presidential debate offers the last chance for candidates to make their cases on one stage before next Tuesday’s key Michigan primary. A loss for Mitt Romney in one of his 47 “home states” would undercut, perhaps fatally, his claim to be the most electable Republican and send his campaign into a political and psychological tailspin that could doom his once overwhelming chances. A victory there, however, would likely re-establish the campaign narrative of the Latter Day Shapeshifter as the inevitable, if unpopular, boring and annoying GOP nominee.
So much rests on the outcome in Michigan and Super Tuesday on March 5 that the political and journalistic worlds are humming with a) concern b) tension or c) desperate hope for a brokered or at least a contested Republican National Convention in Tampa this August. Republicans don’t want it, but it would be a reporters’ fervid dream — something that hasn’t happened since 1976, when President Gerald Ford narrowly defeated former California Gov. Ronald Reagan 1,187 to 1,070 delegates for the nomination.
With the stakes high, here are the key questions for each of the contenders as they face off tonight from Arizona, which also votes next Tuesday (Romney leads Santorum 36-32 there in the just-out CNN/Time poll):
1. Can Romney — finally — offer a rationale for his candidacy? With Mitt scheduled to give a major economic address in Detroit Friday, it’s way past time for him to offer a compelling reason why he should be president — or at least explain why he wouldn’t have bailed out the auto industry.
Obama has done a skillful job of framing the election as his effort to protect the middle class versus Republican policies to heap more benefits on the rich; Mitt’s biographical “I’m a great corporate manager” argument dissolved under assault on his record as a corporate raider at Bain Capital And while his hugely expensive TV attacks on party rivals have led to some a few hard-won victories in Florida and elsewhere, they’ve also sent his favorable-unfavorable ratings plummeting. Time to put up or shut up.
2. Will Santorum show up in a black turban and beard? Taliban Rick has likely frittered away his appeal to some mainstream voters with theological fist pounding on contraception, pre-natal exams, climate change, etc. and GOP establishment types are terrified he might actually win the echo-chamber nomination, further alienating the entire middle of the political spectrum. Will he reprise his blue-collar industry development message? Will he roll out his late coal-miner grandpa? Just how long can the MSM let this insufferable lawyer, lobbyist MBA son of a clinical psychologist and administrative nurse get away with playing working-class hero?
3. Does Newt have another resurrection (note careful spelling here) in him? The old windbag has played out the string at abusing debate moderators, and to get back in the game needs to take down Santorum and re-establish himself as the conservative foil to Romney. On the other hand, at this point he may just be in it to sell books and show off the fair Calista. In any case, he’s always entertaining and we’re looking forward to seeing him this weekend at the California Republican Party convention in Burlingame.
4. How many Ron Paul acolytes does it take to screw in a light bulb in their mom’s basements? Can the MSM continue to take seriously a guy whose No. 1 goal seems to be to gather enough aluminum foil to make hats for his fanboy delegates?
Boxer Jumps into Berman v. Sherman
Closer to home, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer on Tuesday endorsed Rep. Howard Berman in the 30th Congressional District, after seeing a mailer from Rep. Brad Sherman attempting to tie Berman to the 2010 PG&E explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
Her endorsement gives Berman the big-name trifecta, along with U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown. What set Babs off, apparently, was an insane mail piece that Sherman’s campaign sent out with pictures of firefighters and the blast scene from San Bruno, asking the incendiary question: “Why did PG&E contribute $10,000 to elect Congressman Howard Berman?” Because PG&E would rather spend money supporting Berman’s SuperPAC than fixing its pipelines, the mailer argues.
“Don’t let unregulated corporate contributions from companies like PG&E decide who will represent you in Congress,” the mailer screams. “Vote for Brad Sherman.”
As you know, until now, I have stayed out of the primary in the 30th Congressional District because through the years I have worked with both you and Brad on many issues of great importance to our constituents. I can no longer do so. Because of Brad’s campaign mailing, which outrageously tries to connect you to the San Bruno tragedy, I will no longer stay neutral in this race.
Meanwhile, Sherman’s going around telling people (he even did it in a debate Tuesday night) that it was Berman who went negative first, by calling Brad “gum on the bottom of your shoe.”
But it wasn’t the Berman campaign that made that statement: It was Calbuzz. Actually, what we wrote was:
Rock star v. schmo? “This is not a clash of two titans,” said one Hollywood Democrat. “It’s a superstar congressman versus a schlemiel.” It would probably be unkind to describe Sherman as gum on the bottom of your shoe. But not really.
No doubt, some Berman supporters sent our post around, it was linked to at LA Observed and Politico, it was tweeted, Facebooked and emailed. It got more comments on our site than anything we’d ever posted. But even if Berman’s campaign had put our piece in a mailer to every voter in the district — which they didn’t — so what? One guy calls the other a schmo and the other guy says the first guy is a mass murderer?
This is what the Israelis call disproportionate response.