* * *
The World-Herald will have two reporters in Des Moines covering the debate. Click here to see live tweets, and pick up a Sunday World-Herald to read more.
* * *
It's the debates, stupid.
That could be this year's Republican mantra, as a string of national debates set the agenda and the horse race in this year's presidential campaign, overshadowing traditional retail politics in Iowa's caucuses.
So far, it's been more important for candidates to have good showings on national television than to spend their days in Iowa, sipping coffee with potential caucusgoers and hanging out at the local Pizza Ranch.
Just ask Rick Santorum and Rick Perry.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, has logged more face time with Iowans than any other candidate but struggles in polls. Meanwhile, Perry's stock plummeted after several disastrous debates, including a watershed moment when the Texas governor forgot the name of the third federal department he wants abolished.
The debates have highlighted the candidates' weaknesses and strengths, much like past Iowa caucuses have, when candidates spent days on the road, trying to meet as many Iowans as they could, said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines.
Most of Newt Gingrich's campaign has been driven by the former House speaker's debate performances, said Goldford.
"My working hypothesis is that the debates have become the functional equivalent of the Iowa caucuses," Goldford said.
With that in mind, the next two Iowa debates could prove crucial.
The first is set for tonight in Des Moines, while the next will be Dec. 15 in Sioux City. A third Iowa debate to be moderated by former GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump appears unlikely after only two candidates — Gingrich and Santorum — accepted the New York real estate mogul's invitation. Trump may cancel.
All eyes tonight will be on the race's two frontrunners — Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Neither has spent much time in Iowa, though Gingrich has logged considerably more time than Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has made only a token effort in Iowa. (Gingrich has spent 43 days in Iowa; Romney eight.)
The two will have company on the stage, however. The four other major candidates will be there, and, with three weeks left before the caucuses, one of the lesser-known contenders could try to make the case as the alternative to Gingrich or Romney, said Tim Albrecht, a top aide to Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Branstad.
Polls show the race remains wide open. In the most recent survey by the Des Moines Register, about 60 percent of likely Iowa caucusgoers said they still could change their minds.
"I don't think anyone can overstate the importance of tomorrow's debate," Albrecht said Friday.
There have been more of the events this year than most, with at least 14 debates and forums in which the major GOP candidates have participated. And many have been televised nationally in prime time.
It may have been easier for Iowans to catch a debate than to catch a candidate at a town hall.
"We've had far more debates than we've ever had before, and a lot of Iowans are watching the debates and drawing conclusions from the debates when they may have otherwise saw them in person," said U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
King said Romney's decision not to compete with a ground game in Iowa set the tone for the caucuses. When he failed to jump in and aggressively compete in Iowa, other candidates followed suit and focused their attention elsewhere, said King.
But, King said, Romney and other candidates who gave short shrift to Iowa may still pay the price. After all, this is the state where legend has it that Iowans expect to meet each presidential candidate three times before they make a decision.
Candidates like Santorum and Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who visited Iowa frequently this past year, may be in a position to pull off an upset, said King.
"It won't be decided until Jan. 3 whether Iowans are more likely to vote for someone they've met or someone they're seen on television," said King, who said he remains undecided.
Steve Scheffler is one Iowan who hopes that candidates like Romney, who basically skipped Iowa, are not rewarded.
A leader within the social conservatives movement in Iowa, Scheffler said the debates are built around sound bites and do not allow Iowans to get a "real sense" of the candidates.
If Romney does well, he said, future candidates may skip the state and its retail heritage.
"I'm hoping that caucusgoers will think about who they interacted with and not use the debates as a prime measuring stick to support a candidate," said Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Contact the writer: