Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist.
The Republican Party is scheduled to kick off the new year at the National Press Club Monday with a debate among six members including controversial current National Chairman Michael Steele. They will argue whether Steele should stay, with the other five vying to replace him at the Republican National Committee winter meeting on Jan. 14.
Such debates on the presidential level have been a critical element in rallying massive public support for a candidate. But in this instance, the party chairmanship will be decided by the votes of the 168 members of the Republican National Committee, made up of elected party officials from each of the states.
That means the debate among the six hopefuls will likely be only a secondary factor in the outcome, to heavy individual lobbying of committee members already under way. And it is also likely to turn into a shooting gallery by Steele's opponents with him as the target, unless he can skillfully turn their barbs back on them or draw sympathy in the face of the ganging up.
Steele earlier had declined to join a previously scheduled debate prior to announcing he would seek another term as party chairman. Among the declared candidates, he alone has a reputation as a clever, charismatic and energetic speaker, so that may have been a factor in his decision to debate. But he also has a history of putting his foot in his mouth, obliging him to explain away gaffes.
His election as the party's first black chairman has failed appreciably to increase African-American enrollment in Republican ranks, and lavish spending of the RNC's treasury, including running an event at sex-tinged resort, has brought additional questioning.
The others running are Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin party chairman; Saul Anuzis, former Michigan party chairman; former RNC political director Gentry Collins, who earlier quit in protest of Steele's leadership; Mario Cino, another former RNC official; and former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg Ann Wagner.
Candidate debates on the presidential level can be decisive in determining the outcome of the election -- John F. Kennedy's stylistic demolition of Richard Nixon in their first televised face-off in 1960 comes to mind. Polls afterward clearly favored Kennedy, though radio listeners said Nixon had faired better.
In any event, presidential debates are designed to persuade millions of voters to cast their ballots for one or another the participants on election day. In holding a series of them in the fall before the voting starts, candidates who slip in one can recover in the next one.
That was exactly what happened for Ronald Reagan in his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. He stumbled badly a few times, resurrecting the old question of whether Reagan was getting too old to serve another four-year term.
Indeed in their rematch, Reagan was asked whether at 73 he would able to deal with the pressure of a major international confrontation as Kennedy had done in the Cuban missile crisis. With a twinkle in his eye, Reagan replied: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." That, Mondale acknowledged thereafter, was the end of his presidential hopes.
More often, however, candidate debates at most levels have been as much opportunities for opposition ambush as much as for selling oneself to the voting constituency. In 1976, President Gerald Ford's statement that Poland and other communist satellite states in Eastern Europe were not under Soviet domination forced him to spend a week or more in damage control, and he lost the presidency narrowly to Jimmy Carter.
Carter, in turn, in 1980 drew ridicule when he spoke of discussing arms control with his young daughter Amy and was snowed under by Reagan. It was seen as only a minor factor, however, in the outcome.
For good or ill concerning Steele, neither the audience nor the voting constituency will be anywhere near as those attracted by the presidential debates that have become institutionalized in national politics. And Steele and his strategists obviously concluded that on balance he'd better take his chances in the free-for-all.