The big debuts

/ Source: NBC News

While for many of us, the presidential campaign started months ago, the contest will truly kick off for a larger portion of the public over the next two weeks.

In a period of eight days, both fields will meet in debates that will be streamed live right here and will air on MSNBC TV. (Click here to suggest a question for the candidates in the debate.)

The Democrats will grapple with each other in South Carolina on April 26 and the Republicans will butt heads at the Reagan Library in California on May 3.

These first debates have the potential to be candidate defining because the tone each candidate sets will be what stays with the media and the politically engaged for some time.  You know what they say about first impressions…

Perhaps no two candidates have more important first impressions to make than Rudy Giuliani for the Republicans and Barack Obama for the Democrats.  Both are the newcomers for their respective parties and both are garnering the lion’s share of attention right now, making them likely top targets of their foes on debate night.

Giuliani a newcomer?
While some may quibble with calling Giuliani a newcomer, I still regard him as new to the Republican Party. After all, this is the same Giuliani who during the 1994 Republican revolution endorsed a Democrat for governor in New York.

Think about that. In the year of the greatest electoral achievement for the GOP (in arguably a generation) Giuliani wasn’t with his party. “The partisan Republican” Giuliani is a new person for me. 

Of all the Republican candidates, Giuliani is likely to garner the most attention on stage on May 3. For one thing, he is the frontrunner. He’s not only tops in every national poll, he’s ahead or even in many polls of the early primary states.

Perhaps most importantly, Giuliani’s got as much money to spend as any of his other foes. He finished merely $1 million behind Romney in cash-on-hand – and if you count Romney’s debt against the cash-on-hand, Giuliani actually comes out on top.

So it’s natural for the guy in first to be the one attacked the most. But with Giuliani, it’s more than just that he’s the guy ahead.

Giuliani is the candidate that has the hardest sell to social conservatives. All of his opponents will frequently bring it up.

Plenty of strategists believe that once Republican activists are reminded of Giuliani’s relatively liberal positions on issues like guns and abortion, Giuliani’s support in the polls will begin to fade a bit.

I happen to think it’s not as cut and dried as that. But this first debate will be a chance for the other Republican candidates to test the theory.

Every answer Giuliani gives to various socially conservative litmus test questions will be scrutinized like no one else in this first debate. In addition, there’s just not a lot of recent paper on Giuliani.

He hasn’t given the number of policy speeches or in depth interviews that his two main rivals, Mitt Romney and John McCain, have given. So his views on key issues will be newer to the media, therefore garnering more coverage.

So what about Obama?
Barack Obama may not be the outright frontrunner for the Democrats (a la Giuliani and the Republicans) but he’s certainly the candidate garnering the most buzz. And since he’s such a blank slate, everything he says and does will be more closely examined than the other seven Democrats on stage next week.

The media fascination with Obama will drive some of this coverage but the candidates themselves will also dictate this. It’s likely the Democratic candidates will attack Obama more so than even Hillary Clinton, who still sits atop the national polls.

First, most male candidates just don’t know how to attack women candidates. And none will want their first impression to a slew of voters to be an attack on the lone woman in the race.

So that leaves Obama as the likely favorite target for the evening. Remember, before the emergence of Obama as Clinton’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, the rest of the field was vying to become THE anti-Hillary candidate.

Obama occupies the space John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden all want to occupy. 

Second is simple jealousy. Many of the campaigns of the second-tier candidates believe Obama the newcomer has gotten a free ride. And if the media won’t stop fawning over him, then the candidates themselves will do the job.

Then there is the surprise attack. Some of the second- and third-tier candidates are potentially serious challengers for the top spot. They may feel desperate, and launch a surprise attack.

Or the candidates in it for the free air time (Ron Paul or Mike Gravel) may throw off the debate with their pet causes or tough challenges to the frontrunners.

Another thing to look for is the alliances that form during the debate that may surprise the viewers.

Perhaps one of the conservative second tier Republicans (Brownback?) decides to help out one of the frontrunners (McCain?) by launching tough attacks on one of the other frontrunners (Romney?).

Maybe there’s a second tier Democrat (Richardson?) more interested in securing a VP slot, who will audition for the role of attack dog by going after (insert Clinton or Obama here). 

These first debates remind me of baseball’s opening day. Baseball’s first games of the season get a ton of coverage and garner a lot of fan interest. But in the end, the early results are hardly indicators for which teams are headed to the World Series.

I’m not guaranteeing that MSNBC’s first two debates will be the most memorable of the campaign season but I can promise this: these are the most important debates taking place in the next two weeks. But then again, isn’t every debate the most important until the next one?