DES MOINES, Iowa — With Newt Gingrich virtually wearing a big target on his back, he and his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination square off Saturday night in the first of two debates in Iowa that could prove pivotal to the contest.
They will be the last debates before Iowa Republicans cast the first votes for a nominee on Jan. 3. They could be make-or-break moments that could cement Gingrich's surprising lead as the front-runner, or they could scramble the race once again, as they have so many times already in a topsy-turvy campaign.
The debates — the first is from 9 to 11 p.m. EST Saturday in Des Moines on ABC, and the second is at 9 p.m. EST on Dec. 15 in Sioux City on Fox — will be the last free chance all of the candidates will have to reach millions of voters before the country turns away from politics for the holidays.
They'll cap a year in which the televised face-offs have had far greater impact on the race than personal campaigning on the ground in the early-voting states — a first in the presidential nomination process.
Candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain shot up in polls thanks to strong early debate performances, only to fade. Rick Perry came into the debates strong, stumbled repeatedly on the air and watched his support evaporate. Gingrich has been aggressive and polished in most debates, fueling his late surge into the lead even with no money to build a traditional campaign organization.
The debates also are adding an extraordinary dimension of entertainment to the political process, underscored by the glitzy sets each network builds in its search for high ratings. The reality TV culture is clearly influencing the political presentations, sometimes with an emcee ringmaster roaring out the candidates' names as they stroll on stage or an American Idol-style TV celebrity singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." On post-debate shows, on-air focus groups turn thumbs up or down. Then cable news feasts for days on debate highlights that go viral on the Web.
Most of the 11 debates so far have drawn more viewers than the pre-nomination debates in 2007 — driven either by promotion of the networks or the intense interest among Republicans eager to find a champion to take on Democratic President Barack Obama.
A Florida debate in September drew 6.1 million viewers, twice the top-rated debate in the 2008 Republican primaries at the same stage. Others on CBS, CNN and MSNBC this fall have topped 5 million viewers. Of course, these numbers don't compare to the pre-election debates between the two major party nominees. Obama's final 2008 debate against John McCain drew 56.5 million viewers, for example, who could tune in live on every news network. But for a primary season, this year's debates have drawn remarkable interest.
Heading into Saturday's debate at Drake University, Gingrich will be center stage as rivals grab at a last chance to knock him down and Republican voters watch to see how Gingrich handles the heat.
"The rise of Newt Gingrich can be pegged in large part to his performance in the debates," said conservative strategist Keith Appell, who's not affiliated with any of the campaigns. "Now he'll be in the spotlight and will be the object of some of the attacks. How he handles it on the stage will inform a lot of people if their support is justified."
Despite Gingrich's lead in Iowa polls, more than 60 percent of Iowa voters say they still haven't made a final choice, and many will watch the debates for help.
Sue Mersereau, chief compliance officer for a brokerage firm in Des Moines, likes both Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
"I'm probably going to watch those two closely, and see how they react," she said.
So will Marv Rickert, a retired West Des Moines agriculture company sales consultant. "The debates are crucial," he said.
Campaigns see the debates the same way.
"Debates have acted as a reference point for the whole campaign," said David Kochel, Romney's Iowa consultant.
Some candidates are starting to air TV ads in Iowa, including Ron Paul, Perry and Romney. For those without the cash to buy a lot of TV ads, such as Bachmann and Rick Santorum, the debates are a last free chance to slow Gingrich's momentum — and grab some attention themselves.
With that in mind, watch for the candidates not getting called on much to try to muscle their way into the conversation. At a recent debate, Bachmann said it was liberal bias when CBS moderators called on other candidates more than her.
"For any of them," said Appell, "it's all about Iowa. If they don't come in the top three, they're pretty much done. If it looks like Newt has one of those tickets ... all of those people have to drag him down. ... Either they're hoping something will stick or that he will react badly and that will stick."
What sticks in the minds of voters might stay there for weeks, given the holidays.
"There will be some heated discussions around the family tables during the holidays," said Judd Saul, founder of the Cedar Valley Tea Party in Iowa. But that doesn't necessarily mean most voters will be paying attention to the campaigns then.
"After the 19th, I think everyone's going to want to take a break from it until Jan. 2," he said.
(Lightman reported from Iowa, Thomma from Washington)
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