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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: How the Republican presidential race is firming up

Published: Sunday, Sept. 11 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

With two favorite sons (one of them adopted) in the presidential race, Utahns, more than most Americans, are following the contest closely. And with the field of contenders likely set, the race is firming up, with frontrunners, sleeper candidates and also-rans. We explore the watercooler questions:

The most important question regarding the debate last Wednesday night is not who won, but who prevailed in the postmortem analysis by pundits and bloggers. Who is wining the spin cycle?

Pignanelli: "It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech." — Mark Twain. The universal consensus among political observers is that Mitt Romney is bolstered by his debate performance. Other than a handful of Texas newspapers that praised their Gov. Rick Perry (readers may now roll their eyes), veteran politicos praised Romney for deflecting attacks and articulating an economic agenda. Perry is receiving high marks for not appearing as a complete Neanderthal.

Webb: While Perry and Romney were the center of attention and both did reasonably well, Jon Huntsman also received some pundit plaudits, again demonstrating that the news media like his "sensible moderation," as one writer put it. Romney was portrayed as solid and steady, while Perry was more up and down in his first debate, but probably didn't erode his frontrunner status.

What strategy must Huntsman use before he becomes irrelevant?

Webb: It is still very early. Four years ago, eventual nominee John McCain was not the frontrunner at this point in the contest. The frontrunners faded. Huntsman, a McCain protégé, is, no doubt, hoping for a similar outcome in this cycle. But it's hard to see it happening, although his debate performance helped. Huntsman is so far back in the pack, and his mainstream message, while popular with the news media, isn't resonating with the conservative Republicans crucial to winning the nomination.

Huntsman may be running for secretary of state, vice president or 2016 president, but he needs additional strong performances and upward poll numbers to even be viable for those opportunities. A pundit noted that coming in second or third positions a candidate to run again. But coming in seventh is no way to win the future.

Pignanelli: The Republican intelligentsia is screaming for Huntsman to increase his presence and rise in the polls. As demonstrated in the debate, he is polished and substantive. Huntsman's economic plan received rave reviews from financial experts for detailed proposals. But he is missing a creative and aggressive spin to his otherwise important arguments. George Bush breathed new life into his 1980 campaign by successfully labeling "voodoo economics" on Reagan's campaign proposals. Since Huntsman is bullet proof against any weak hits from Perry and Romney, he should have fun characterizing their respective records as governor (i.e., "The Tired Texas Tirade" or "Massachusetts Mush"). The media will do the rest.

Can Huntsman push all the way to the New Hampshire primary or is he out by Halloween?

Webb: If Huntsman does well in the several upcoming debates and his numbers start to rise (especially in New Hampshire), he can hang in. He has said he plans to win New Hampshire and that's his focus. But if he stays relegated to the back of the pack, he should get out before embarrassing himself.

Pignanelli: Huntsman needs to instill same level of passion he has for extreme sports into his campaign. Otherwise, he may not have the momentum for the fight in New Hampshire.

Will the Romney and Perry wrestle for front-runner be decided by year-end?

Pignanelli: Nope. This fight will be decided in March.

Webb: The contest goes on into next year. Romney is well-funded, can compete in numerous states and is running a much better race than he did four years ago. Perry is a formidable candidate not likely to flame out, but his staying power and strength in a variety of states has yet to be tested. Republican voters will also have to decide if Perry, the conservative firebrand, can win a general election against President Obama.

Should local Democrats be worried if Romney leads the GOP ticket in Utah? Or if Perry wins the nomination, will there be a backlash against right-wing Republicans for perceived anti-Mormon bias?

Webb: Romney greatly strengthens the Republican ticket in Utah. He increases turnout, attracts support of independents and helps Republicans up and down the ballot. Perry would still handily win Utah, but wouldn't provide a big boost for the ticket. The neighborhood dogcatcher beats Obama in Utah.

Pignanelli: Utah suffers from a low voter turnout. But if Romney is on top of 2012 ballot, wayward Republican voters will be falling from the trees for the chance to vote for their hero — and it will be a straight party ticket. Thus, voter turnout jumps, but Democrats suffer a huge hit. Conversely, the evangelical GOP could play the religion card at Republican primaries and caucuses to deny Romney the nomination (40 percent of Republican delegates are fundamentalist Christians). Utah Democrats will have a great PR tool to persuade LDS Republicans to cross over on Election Day.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com

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