Tonight, the Republican presidential candidates will debate in Ames, Iowa. This is a big-time debate for a number of reasons. It's the first one to be held in the first-in-the-nation state, so it's an opportunity to make a good impression on Iowa voters. It's also taking place just two days before the Ames Straw Poll, the results of which could make or break a campaign, especially if that campaign is Tim Pawlenty's. And even though Jon Huntsman is focusing his campaign on New Hampshire, tonight could be a turning point for him, too. Though individual primary debates, on their own, don't normally tend to make a huge difference in the campaign horse race, this year each of the first two debates served as a launching pad for one previously underperforming candidate.
In the first debate, on May 5, a little-known former pizza-chain CEO named Herman Cain transformed from "not a real candidate," in the words of Republican strategist Frank Luntz, to, well, something approaching a real candidate. In a focus group conducted by Luntz, Cain was declared the winner nearly unanimously.
Following the debate, Cain's chances of winning the GOP nomination, as determined by the betting website Intrade, shot up immediately and rose throughout the next few weeks. True, he only reached a high of about 7 percent, but that 7 percent represented more than a 1,000 percent increase over where he'd been on May 4.
Cain's poll numbers also jumped. According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, Cain (the red line) was pulling just 3 percent before the debate. In the next poll that he was actually included in, about two weeks later, he was at 8 percent, and regularly reached double digits in subsequent polls.
But by the time the second debate rolled around on June 13, there was a new fresh face onstage. This was the first debate that Michele Bachmann participated in, and she stole the show the same way Cain had in May. Like Cain, Bachmann soared on Intrade after the debate:
And she jumped from near the bottom of the polls (black line) to near the top:
Of course, there's the other thing that happened with both Cain and Bachmann: After surging, they both peaked, and then started to drop. Perhaps with Cain, the novelty of the "businessman with zero political experience" wore off, or people were turned off by his odd obsession with Sharia, which the last time we checked is having little to no effect on the American economy. With Bachmann, the rise of Rick Perry seems to be eating away at some of her support. A good debate performance can boost a new candidate, but after that, there are no guarantees.
Still, for Huntsman, who has failed to gain any traction, anywhere, since entering the race seven weeks ago, just the opportunity to attract more attention and make a good first impression is enough. Huntsman suffers from low name-recognition, and the little that many voters have heard about him is probably unflattering — that he's that liberal who supports civil unions and worked for President Obama. This will be the first time that many voters ever see him or hear him speak, unfiltered, without the biases of unfriendly right-wing radio hosts or conservative blogs. Huntsman isn't loud or flashy, so it could be tough for him to stand out on a crowded stage, but if he wants to rise above the low single-digits in the polls, he needs to find a way.