As the Republican presidential hopefuls converge on Iowa this week for Thursday night's debate and Saturday's influential straw poll, we caught up with Republican strategist Marc Lampkin, deputy campaign manager for George W. Bush's 2000 presidential bid and a former staffer to Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) years before he became House speaker. His thoughts on the unofficial kickoff to the GOP primaries:
Corey Dade: Are voters even paying attention this early? Or is the real audience the news media and party loyalists, such as fundraisers and potential campaign workers?
Marc Lampkin: I think middle America, people with busy lives, aren't paying attention. You're looking at the punditry class, the political operatives, fundraising targets. It's sort of a primary within the primary. You're selling your message. Everybody wants to kick the tires, if you will.
That's really done in the activist world and the media class. It's almost more important to score points with them than with the general public because by the time people have to vote, this debate will be long forgotten, but what the media and punditry class have to say about you will have long-lasting impact [on voters].
Dade: With social media and the Internet providing more ways for candidates to get out their message, are debates any less influential with voters? Or will debates now assume a different role?
Lampkin: Absolutely, less influence. With Twitter and blogs, you've got instant reaction and almost overanalysis. You say something at 11 a.m. and it's going to get a reaction from opponents by noon, it's going to be covered by online posts and bloggers immediately. The turnaround time for candidates and pundits is instantaneous.
So debates really have taken on a different meaning. They let voters see candidates in real time, how they look, their body language ... how you connect with them in the mass marketing way. The uniqueness of debates is they give you a chance to look at everybody at the same time. You look at the Herman Cains, the Thaddeus McCotters — this is their 15 minutes to break out. If you go back four years and look at [then-Republican presidential candidate] Mike Huckabee, his ability to connect with conservatives at debates is what gave him the ability for a while to compete well with [eventual Republican nominee John] McCain.
Dade: What about the post-debate spin room, then? If campaigns are constantly communicating in real time — as they no doubt will during tonight's debate — is there still a need for the rehash session following the debates?
Lampkin: Around the edges it is effective. I think other things have overtaken it. Pre-Internet and pre-24-hour news cycle, you were having these spin room discussions with reporters. Now, it's instant tweeting or blogging; most people can access the debate over the Internet and you have validators and advocates instantly weighing in. It's become diluted in a sea of activities that allow people to shift the debate instantaneously. So, we have a lot of analysis that goes on in real time that makes the spin room less and less relevant.
Dade: Obviously, for the candidates, public enemy No. 1 tonight is President Obama and his handling of the economy. If they all focus on attacking him, could they miss the chance to differentiate themselves from each other?
Lampkin: Absolutely. The first test is demonstrating their bona fides against Obama. For a Republican primary voter base, attacking the Obama administration for its policies — I don't think there's any overkill for that. I think going into personal attacks — Is he a Muslim? Or the "birther" issue — that can take it over the top. Otherwise, Republicans want the red meat.
But they do need to explain why they are better than their rivals. ... Potential voters need to see why you're a better standard-bearer for the conservative wing than your opponents, by people seeing you go directly at your opponents. But there's always a fine line. You don't want come off as shrill or mean.
Dade: So it's time they took off the gloves with each other? Who's the biggest target, Mitt Romney as the front-runner?
Lampkin: They have to go after Romney. Thus far, he has escaped sustained scrutiny. One of the things that causes anxiety with hard-core conservative voters is Obama's health care policy. To the extent that you can bring up what Romney did with health as governor of Massachusetts, you create the distinction and put some chinks in his armor.
Dade: Sum up the rest of the field. Which candidates most need to land some blows to gain ground?
Lampkin: There's a pack at the top. Mitt Romney has to prove to conservatives that they can trust him. ... [Tim] Pawlenty has a successful record as a governor to run on. These are high stakes for him because he's an evangelical and he's in some respects one of them in Iowa. But he's got to show the skeptical voters that he's willing to go after opponents and criticize their records or lack thereof. ... He's got Michele Bachmann nipping at his heels. Bachmann's got some intensity but is not really there yet.
The other guys have to get past legitimacy. Are they flukes? Wild cards? They have to prove they are not just the hot thing for the moment.
But you could have a stumble by Romney and a stumble by Bachmann that could help Pawlenty or the others.