Waiting for the Next Big Surge

John Dickerson and David Weigel take your questions about the final GOP debate before the Iowa Caucuses.

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich during a GOP debate

Photo by Getty Images.

Slate political correspondents John Dickerson and David Weigel were on our Facebook page to chat with readers about last night’s GOP presidential debate and the state of the 2012 election. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

John Dickerson: Hi everyone. The Hilton Garden Inn room I’m in doesn’t have a desk so this is a test of my ability to answer questions and the laptop’s ability to not catch on fire.

Dave Weigel: I’m here, having raced/crawled through traffic from the airport. Ready, raring.

Gabby Weiss: Do you think that Huntsman is the dark horse candidate here? Will saner heads prevail?

Collin Czarnecki: I second Gabby’s question.

John Dickerson: Gabby I’m just not sure Huntsman can break through. He’s inching up in N.H. but he just doesn’t feel like he connects with the voting gut of a party that this year is voting with its gut (not that they don’t normally, actually).


Christophe Diederich: How serious is Obama about stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear power?

John Dickerson: Christophe we can’t really know how serious he is because much of what’s going on is covert, but with scientists dying, computer worms crashing centrifuges and drones crashing in Iran I’d say there’s a pretty high level of seriousness.

John Dickerson: Though obviously a lot of that is Israel too.


Brian Lemieux: How do you see the Republican message evolve from the primaries to the general election against Obama?

Dave Weigel: Good question, because my assumption for a very long time was that the Three Stooges-esque dogpile of conservative candidates would allow Mitt Romney to slip through and win the nomination without making too many concessions to the right. He just started making concessions, basically, this month, starting when he hit Newt Gingrich for a lack of Ryan plan philo-ism. If it’s Romney, you’ll see him tack right back to the “Obama’s a good guy, he just can’t create jobs or lead the military” lines if he wins. If Gingrich pulls this off? Wow. Much less sure.

Brian Lemieux: Thanks for the answer Dave, I also wonder what a protracted primary between Mitt and Newt would do … months of trying to prove who hates Obama more would make it harder for Mitt to tack back to “Obama’s a good guy” if he wins the nomination.


Thomas F Schaller: Hey John, hey Dave: My thought was Paul was the big loser last night. No?

John Dickerson: Hey Tom. I think Paul has his own weather. His supporters love him and nothing he did in the debates will hurt him. Can he grow his vote? That has always been his problem. I’m not sure a debate one way or the other can help him with that. I thought going into the debate that he might be a top finisher in Iowa and I still do.

Thomas F Schaller: Has his own weather—love that. I of course don’t think he lost any of his devotees. … I just wonder if any of his recent movement in IA got stunted as he (finally) came under a bit of attack and found himself giving answers on Iran and Supreme Court justices that may not sit well with non-Paulites. ps: have a good holiday season.

Dave Weigel: Thomas—yes, the take I was getting from non-aligned Republican strategists was that Paul blew it by being … Ron Paul. He’d been picking up support among Republicans by running on life, deregulation, etc. and etc. When I was in his Iowa HQ yesterday, I noticed that he had 14 pieces of campaign literature, and almost nothing about foreign policy. And yet he took a series of big, fat swings on foreign policy that sounded—even if you agree with him—unpresidential. If you’re a conservative Republican imagining the guy in the White House, part of the fantasy is a strong (sigh, Reagan-esque) commander in chief. Despite being a veteran with, I think, a very defensible America First theory of the world, Paul didn’t broadcast anything like the fantasy.

Thomas F Schaller: Thx, Dave.


Brian Ries: Will Ron Paul see a direct bump in the polls for his fiery criticism of Michele Bachmann’s Iranian warmongering?

John Dickerson: Brian I’d be surprised if the GOP primary and caucus voters who pick their candidates based on their anti-war views have not already discovered Ron Paul.


Pat Wente: Is the anybody-but-Romney just an anti-Mormon stance? If anyone embodies family values, living your religion, and free market capitalism it’s Romney. Yet he’s behind Newt? So you think the GOP’s chickens have come to roost, as it were? If you court the middle-class fundamentalists with your faux family values stance and lure them into voting against their economic interests, should you be surprised to learn that their Sunday night prayer meetings have included months-long programs on the evils of the Mormon cultists?

John Dickerson: Pat, I’m not sure about the Mormon thing. Clearly it’s a thing with some evangelicals. But they have so many other reasons to dislike Romney. Changing positions for political reasons (the rap against Romney) is among the most toxic problems in politics. How do we know? It’s one of the critiques that Romney is launching at Gingrich.

Pat Wente: Thanks, John.


Josh Krantz: The oppo file on Gingrich is huge, so why does Romney seem averse to going negative?

Dave Weigel: He’s not averse at all! I point you to the ad Romney’s super PACE—sorry, the TOTALLY NOT ALIGNED super PAC—is now running in Iowa. I heard it many times when there this week.

At this point Romney’s team is only using stuff in the public record, not pioneering new Newt attacks. To a pretty large degree, they’re letting attacks get tested in the media, especially conservative media, before they shoot. But that’s still negative!

John Dickerson: Josh, Romney has been going negative and will again if Gingrich wins some contests. Romney didn’t go negative last night because a) it can look unattractive in a debate, b) it makes Newt stronger and c) might not be necessary because Gingrich is already falling


Beth Young: Will they all sign a pledge to the American People that they will not allow the payroll tax cut to expire? It will save each taxpayer $1,000 on average.

Beth Young: Will they have to give up their No Taxes mantra if they let the payroll tax expire?

Dave Weigel: Beth—nope, they will not sign anything like that. It’s not in their interest to defend the president in any way. It’s actually a bit surprising that Romney has given some cover to the Democrats’ plan. But the payroll tax debate represents a big lurch to the right (in terms of what’s desirable/actionable in Congress), so the GOP candidates hardly need to say more.


Brian Shortt: I know it’s early to start the expectations game, but are any of the early primaries “do or die” for the candidates? I figure Huntsman has to do better than expected in NH to continue, while Paul will go on regardless of results. What about the others?

John Dickerson: Brian you’re right about Huntsman. Bachmann has to do well in IA. Perry has money to live to SC but if he can’t do something there he’s done. Romney has to do very well in NH.

Dave Weigel: Brian—about the “do or die” thing … I’d say Bachmann needs to place in the top three in Iowa (where, she likes to remind us, she was born) or she’s out. Santorum and Perry could muddle on to South Carolina, but I don’t see how Santorum lasts past SC (where he’s got a nice network). Perry, if he doesn’t break out by then, is on life support, just as Fred Thompson was at the same point in 2008. And it’s really over for John Huntsman if he doesn’t shock us with second place in New Hampshire.

Brian Shortt: Thanks John. I’m sure every primary has the same pattern of one candidate racing to a lead and then falling back to the pack or out altogether, but it seems more like whack-a-mole than any others I can recall. Have you seen it to this extent in campaigns you’ve previously covered and does it make it easier or harder (or is it just different)? It has to be more interesting than if Romney was just walking away with it.

John Dickerson: ‎’96 is the closest I can think of on the Republican side but it wasn’t like this. In ‘96 there was a Forbes moment, a Buchanan moment and an Alexander moment but it wasn’t debate fueled and news cycle fueled like this race has been.


Liam Murray: As a UK observer it’s strange to see only 1 broadly centrist/mainstream Republican (Romney) in a sort of “tag team” primary with 5 or 6 others of more ideological bent, each getting their turn but ultimately receding. Was there nobody else seriously challenging for that “serious candidate” hat? Feels like Huntsman came closest but other than that ….

Dave Weigel: Liam, did you pay much attention to the 2001 open party primary that ended up electing Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leader? This is like that, except obviously much more chaotic. The Republican base views “serious” and “moderate” as code words for the media forcing loser candidates who won’t challenge Barack Obama on what they see as massive socialism. This is why Huntsman hasn’t taken off. Even if he does well in New Hampshire, no one can explain to me how he’ll survive in South Carolina and Florida, closed primaries with extremely radicalized GOP voters.

John Dickerson: Everyone read Weigel’s answer to Liam above.

Liam Murray: Thanks Dave. Interesting comparison with IDS because he lasted only a couple of years of course and never even got to fight an election, largely because even the Tories who warmed to him initially realized he didn’t have a chance of beating Blair. Even his replacement—Michael Howard—was widely seen as a placeholder for the younger Cameron post 2005 defeat. I guess my point is as soon as you hit a real campaign it’ll become clear that “moderate” isn’t “code” for anything; it’s a straightforward way of saying the broader US electorate won’t elect an extreme from either party.

Liam Murray: I don’t doubt the idea that the GOP base dismisses ‘moderate’ or ‘sensible’ as ‘lamestream media code’ for the exact sort of candidate they DON’T want but there’s a question around why that’s the case? Why they’ve become so distrustful of the centre. This Guardian piece on Fox News perhaps speaks to why….


Roland Paquette: Wouldn’t anyone like to know if Newt has had connections with former Chief Executive Officer Daniel H. Mudd, former Chief Risk Officer Enrico Dallavecchia, and former Executive Vice President of Fannie Mae’s Single Family Mortgage business, Thomas A. Lund—who were named in the SEC’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The SEC also charged three former Freddie Mac executives—former Chairman of the Board and CEO Richard F. Syron, former Executive Vice President and Chief Business Officer Patricia L. Cook, and former Executive Vice President for the Single Family Guarantee business Donald J. Bisenius—in a separate complaint filed in the same court.

Roland Paquette: Personally, I think if anyone can tie Newt to corruption at Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, of which there is plenty to go around, he’s toast.

Dave Weigel: Roland—a fair question! The Freddie execs who might have benefited from Gingrich’s “historical advice” have not rushed to microphones to explain what actually happened. Microphones became even scarier-looking to them today. This would be a fair line of questioning for Gingrich in an interview.

Roland Paquette: Thanks Dave…Exactly why I posed the question. I am hoping someone asks the tough questions.


Dan Fagnant: Who has the most to gain from a stronger than expected Iowa showing and how well must Bachmann and Santorum finish in order to keep their campaigns alive post Iowa?

Dave Weigel: Dan—great question, because the media plays an outsized role in determining who “won.” It’s based on who the conventional wisdom expected to win the day before the vote. I’d say that Rick Perry has the most to gain if, say, he pulls a surprise third place in the caucus. He’s tightened up his debate performances, he has a national fundraising network (even if it’s Texas-heavy), he has Super PAC support. He’d have just pulled an upset—even if it was weaker than you might have expected from him a month ago—and positioned himself as a serious candidate when the Southern primaries begin. I’d say Santorum has the least to gain even if he does well, because frankly (with apologies to Newt) the press expects social-issues-first candidates to outperform in caucuses.


Eric Anderson: With proportional primaries, can any candidate have a breakthrough win? Or as Romney has hinted, will this be a long slog?

John Dickerson: Eric, yes! Assuming that the candidate has money and to a lesser extent organization, but I am not sure who that candidate would be. You could imagine a late dash into the contest by some superman candidate but that’s mostly a fantasy of column writers

Dave Weigel: Eric—glad you asked, because this is a common misconception. The GOP will NOT have proportional primaries the way the Democrats did in 2008. States holding primaries before April 1 will award delegates proportionately, but not with the rounding system that Democrats used in 2008. That system ended up spotting Barack Obama a lot of votes. The response of many states to the PR rule has been to push the primaries back. I’m watching PR and think it can keep the race going past February, but I don’t imagine it’ll prevent any candidate from winning fairly early.


Alex Saltzberg: What happened to the Telemundo debate?

Dave Weigel: Alex—it went nowhere. You didn’t ask about this, but a similar Hispanic voter-focused debate skedded for Univision fell apart because Republicans pulled out, claiming to protest a hit piece that the network was running on Marco Rubio. Yes. Missed opportunities.


Chad E. Burns: With the space between now and Iowa and Gingrich’s current trend, does having the debate break and holiday distraction help or harm his lead? Does it help someone else at his expense?

John Dickerson: Chad, good question. I think it could go either way. If the negative ads and the general attacks against Gingrich are biting then he has no way to defend himself that will punch through the holidays and get to voters. On the other hand if Romney has to knock Gingrich back, with every passing day that he can’t do it the attention span of voters disappears into the eggnog and the holiday wrapping paper.


Ben Florsheim: How is the Santorum Surge Watch looking?

Dave Weigel: Ben—I’ve moved on to anticipation of a Perry surge watch! The search for the surge is largely an audit of campaign coverage looking for a reason that candidate X may surge, and I haven’t seen much of that for Santorum lately. If you see it, though …


John Dickerson: Okay they’re kicking me out of my hotel room. The laptop didn’t blow up at least. Thanks for your questions everyone!

Dave Weigel: That was fun! Thanks for commenting, and please keep nagging/tipping me off at the usual Slate digs.

Pat Wente: This was a great exchange. Thanks to all!