Open Thread: Have TV Debates Adversely Changed the GOP Race?

After the debate tomorrow night, the crop of current GOP presidential candidates will have participated in four nationally televised debates in just over one month, attracting record audiences and affecting poll numbers drastically each time.

According to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Fred Barnes, the increased number of debates has had a major impact on the race, giving also-rans free publicity with no incentive to drop out and allowing the media to pit the candidates against each other, giving Obama a free pass.

Do you think Republicans have given the media too much power by hosting so many debates? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

The first problem Barnes acknowledges is that the debates have allowed the media to shift the campaign narrative to discussing "arguments over issues spawned by the debates themselves," rather than discussing arguments against the current administration's policies.

Gov. Rick Perry's policy of offering instate tuition at Texas colleges for illegal immigrants, and his effort to require 12-year-old girls to be inoculated against HPV virus, became prominent issues once he was pelted with questions about them in the debates. When Mr. Romney attacked Mr. Perry's position on Social Security, it emerged as a front-burner issue. Mr. Perry gave the issue a news hook by calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme."

While Mr. Romney's record in Massachusetts was always going to be a major issue, the debates have made it more so. The same is the case with Mr. Perry's opposition to erecting a fence across the U.S. border with Mexico.

The debates have also been a prime opportunity for the media to pit Republicans against each other by encouraging conflict between the candidates, instead of against President Obama:

By focusing heavily on Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry, the three debates in September heightened the impression, if not the reality, of a two-man contest for the GOP nomination. Time after time, questioners raised an issue with one of them, then turned to the other for a response. Mr. Romney provoked spirited clashes by challenging Mr. Perry's stances on Social Security, immigration and the Texas economy.

During the Sept. 7 MSNBC debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Mr. Perry said Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis "created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt." Mr. Romney fired back: "Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor." He was referring to Mr. Bush's time at Texas governor from 1995 to 2001.

Mr. Romney asked Mr. Perry at the Sept. 12 CNN debate in Tampa, Fla., if he believed Social Security should be turned over to the states. "I think we ought to have a conversation," Mr. Perry responded, trying to brush the issue aside. "We're having that right now, governor," Mr. Romney replied. "We're running for president."

In combination, the debates often end up giving Obama a free pass because the media has turned the candidates against each other's policies instead of against Obama's policies. It also allows "...Mr. Obama's strategists [to] get an early glimpse of the vulnerabilities of the Republican candidates, their strengths and weaknesses on issues, and the attacks used most effectively against them."

Do you think Republicans have given the media too much power by hosting so many presidential debates?

Debates 2012 Presidential Campaigns & Elections Open Thread