Posted: Aug. 12, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Televisions all over the place were tuned Thursday evening to watch some aggressive confrontations, get an early look at various unfamiliar players and gauge who had the best prospects for going all the way.

No, no, no, not the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens pre-season football game. The Republican presidential primary debate at Iowa State University.

Oh. There was a debate?

Even Bret Baier, the Fox News moderator, seemed to have his mind more on the gridiron than Washington gridlock as he led off the broadcast by misspeaking, "These folks in the stadium, in the studio, are fired up."

The debate had its moments. All the Republican candidates not named Mitt Romney tried to break out of the rest of the pack before Rick Perry is supposed to show up, Texas bigfoot-style. Romney took after Barack Obama, Tim Pawlenty took after fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich took after the press.

"Spirited, lively, interesting," said John Sigler, the Republican state chair.

"I was interested in seeing Gingrich breathe some life back into his campaign. I thought Michele Bachmann handled Tim Pawlenty pretty well. Romney handled himself really well. If there was an elephant in the room but not behind a podium, it was Rick Perry."

It looks like it was intriguing enough for the Delaware Republicans to think about hosting one of these debates themselves.

Delaware may be losing an early presidential primary date this time around, but it could be gaining an early Republican presidential debate, instead.

No one is saying anything officially, because the arrangements are still in the planning stages, but the state Republicans are working with the University of Delaware to bring a debate, approved by the national Republican Party, to the Newark campus.

It would probably be scheduled the last week in November and most likely broadcast on CNN, in advance of the crucial opening rounds of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

The dates of the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire are not set yet, as other states are still jockeying for a place toward the front of the line. The two early states could go as soon as December or as late as February, according to an analysis by Frontloading HQ, a Web site that tracks the primary calendar.

The university, of course, was the site last year of a Senate debate between Chris Coons and Christine O'Donnell, also shown on CNN.

A presidential primary debate would be a coup for the state Republicans, still trying to find their way back to political relevancy after their disastrous 2010 campaign season, touched off by O'Donnell's madcap candidacy.

The release of O'Donnell's book next week is unlikely to do it.

Not to mention a presidential primary debate could be the most attention Delaware as a whole gets in the primary season. After four floundering attempts since 1996 to crack into the early lineup, the state gave up. With the consent of both parties, the legislature passed a bill moving back the voting, and Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, signed it into law on July 27.

The new date for Delaware's primary is the fourth Tuesday in April, on the 24th, the same day as Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Not only does it create something of a Northeast Primary Day, but the Delaware Democrats will be awarded bonus delegates by their national party for not crowding the front of the calendar.

"I think this was a shrewd move for Delaware," said Josh Putnam, a political scientist who runs Frontloading HQ as a visiting professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

"Given both its size and history, or lack thereof, as a consequential presidential primary state, it will always be difficult for the First State to gain the candidates' or media's attention. At least common regional issues will be discussed if the Republican nomination race stretches into late April."

The state could do worse for presidential allure. It will never have Paris, New Hampshire, but Delaware will always have the vice president.