Too Much Debate? Why the Republican Frontrunner Keeps Changing

The frequent TV match-ups have given the underfunded campaigns of Cain, Bachmann and Gingrich a chance to be momentarily on top

Debates are doing in the Republican candidates one by one, and yet they can’t seem to stop talking. And we can’t seem to stop watching.

Tuesday night’s debate was the 11th political face-off among the Republican candidates in a year that has seen more televised blab-fests than any presidential election cycle in memory.

Much to the surprise of the political establishment, the debates are determining front-runner status on a weekly basis.

Also read: Watch Rick Perry GOP Debate Gaffe: 'I Can't Remember – Oops' (Video)

They elevated the underfunded Michele Bachmann and sidelined her within a month. They turned Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan into a national buzz word. They shined a spotlight on golden boy Rick Perry before crippling him when he repeatedly fumbled responses to basic policy questions.

And now they are giving Newt Gingrich a second chance.  

Tuesday night was focused on national security. With Cain, Perry and Bachmann on hand, it was lively entertainment, even if a few candidates did come off like deer in the headlights.

Also read: From Cain to Bachmann: Which GOP Candidate Will Be the Next Media Star?

“They’ve turned the Republican race into a national primary rather than a state-by-state battle, at least up to this point,” Dan Balz, national political correspondent at the Washington Post, told TheWrap. “Once we get to January, we’ll go state by state, but the debates have really shaped the Republican race in ways no one quite anticipated.”

The contest for the Republican nomination isn’t being waged in the cornfields of Iowa or the VFW halls of New Hampshire; it’s been fought almost exclusively over a candidate’s debate performance.

Also read: The Media's Michele Bachmann Obsession: Tough Reporting or Sexism?

Impressively, Bachmann, Cain and Gingrich have done it all without having much of a ground presence in early primary states or the war chests to compete with the man who rode into the election as the presumed front runner, Mitt Romney. 

“All you need is a few hundred dollars to get you to the next debate to keep your candidacy alive,” Lawrence O’Donnell, host of “The Last Word” on MSNBC, told TheWrap. “It’s a new economic structure that’s keeping their campaigns viable.”

It doesn’t hurt that the ratings have been bullish, with debates on each of the three major cable news networks bringing in between 5 million to 6 million viewers apiece.

But what debates giveth, they can also taketh away. When Perry threw his hat in the ring last summer, the Texas governor was instantly perceived as the frontrunner, until he stumbled badly by backing away from earlier attacks on Social Security and endorsed giving children of illegal immigrants lower tuition at public universities.

Oh, and there was Perry’s brain freeze about the three cabinet departments he’d like dismantled — the “oops” moment instantly became a YouTube sensation and seemed to banish Perry to also-run status.

“When he came into the race, he had the wind at his back … but he lost altitude and that moment took him from a top-tier candidate to mid-tier,” Jay Wallace, VP of news and senior executive producer of news and politics at Fox News, told TheWrap.

Part of the reason that the debates seem to have more impact than usual, is that unlike in past years, the field of Republican contenders is remarkably volatile.

Historically, political experts tell TheWrap, the party has had a less contentious process for grooming its candidates; from Ronald Reagan to John McCain, Republicans have voted for candidates who have run for president before and were the party’s runner-ups.

“Romney is only nominally next in line and he didn’t do that well in the 2008 primaries,” Thomas Edsall, professor of journalism at Columbia University and a former political reporter at the Washington Post, told TheWrap. "He’s not really the prince who needs to be crowned.”

The alternatives to the former Massachusetts governor, however, were not widely known before the race began, giving the debates added importance this cycle.

“Their introduction has been these televised debates,” Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, told TheWrap. “People don’t know who these people are, so their impressions are based on the debate performances.”

Even though the fluctuating front-runners have upended campaign models, it’s not clear that having a lead in national polls will translate into votes in Iowa, South Carolina, Florida and other key early contests.

In this respect, the onslaught of debates may have had a crippling effect.

“There’ve been so many debates, so early that it’s taking the candidates’ eyes off of the primary states,” Christian Potholm, professor of government at Bowdoin College, told TheWrap. “It means the candidates are focused on their performances, so they're distracted during the day of a debate and tired during the next day’s campaign events. It’s having an enormously disruptive effect, and it’s silly. We’re electing a president, not a debate society high performer.”

They’ve also had the potentially damaging effect of focusing heavily on red meat Republican issues such as the death penalty and gays in the military that may not play as well with moderate voters. That could make the task of veering to the center after the nomination is secure more problematic for the party’s standard bearer.

“President Obama is the undisputed winner of every Republican debate and Romney comes in second,” O’Donnell told TheWrap. “You’re watching a show with really deluded people running around, and so the one reasonable sounding guy is the default winner.

“That is one of the risks of debating within the party; it tends to pull a candidate to the outer edge of the party’s extreme,” he added.  

Lucas Shaw contributed to this report.