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February 14, 2012

US Republican Candidate Debates Define Positions

by Jeffrey Young

The Republican Party's presidential candidates have been confronting each other in a series of debates meant to give voters a sense of where each aspirant stands on critical issues. These debates serve to deliver messages from the candidates about themselves and their rivals.

These presidential contenders share a common love for America, but not for each other.

"In the 15 years after he left the speakership [of the House of Representatives], the Speaker [Newt Gingrich] has been working as an influence peddler in Washington," said Mitt Romney in one debate. 

"He just said at least four things that were false. I don't want to waste time on them," Newt Gingrich said.

As they vie for their party's nomination, the contenders put on their verbal boxing gloves and entered the ring of the candidate debates!

In the 2012 presidential contest, the incumbent, Barack Obama, is unopposed within his own Democratic Party.  But the field is wide open in the other main U.S. party, the Republicans.  And the competition is fierce. The nationally televised debates provide a place where the candidates can speak directly to the electorate in search of support.

The present era of presidential debates began in 1976, when incumbent President Gerald Ford sparred with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.  Debates have been part of presidential elections ever since.  But unlike traditional debates, they are not structured as point-and-rebuttal arguments.  The format is more question-and-response, with other candidates' jabs and jousts thrown in, as Georgetown University professor Mark Rom notes.

"They have been 'free-for-alls' where all the Republican candidates for president have been able to make their best claims, their biggest charges, their strongest attacks on their opponents as a way of lifting themselves up in the polls," he said.

An on-camera mistake costs debaters dearly. A recent example of this happened to candidate Governor Rick Perry who could not name three federal entities he vowed to eliminate.

There is one series of debates held before each party officially nominates its candidate.

Then, just before the November election, there are three debates between the nominees, and one between their vice presidential running mates.  In 2008, it was Democrat Barack Obama against Republican John McCain.

Unlike the pre-nomination debates, these are not held by TV networks, newspapers, or political parties, but are run by the independent, nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

Their structure is more formal, and the stakes are much higher, as Politico newspaper reporter David Levinthal explains.

"When you have the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate, who are going head-to-head with each other, that's the championship game right there," he said.  "Your performance in those debates is going to be absolutely critical to the outcome of the election in many cases."  

One notable example of that were the 1960 debates between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon.  Historians credit Kennedy's TV debate performance as a big factor in his victory.