There have been five such debates so far, but only the last two of them have been considered major because they have featured Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is leading in the polls.
Except the debates haven’t really featured him. They have featured the audience.
If you have ever asked yourself how crowds could have gathered to cheer public burnings, beheadings and guillotinings in times past, tune into one of these debates and you will stop asking.
At a POLITICO/NBC News debate last week in Simi Valley, Calif., Brian Williams began asking Perry about one unique aspect of his record as governor: the number of people Texas has put to death.
WILLIAMS: “Gov. Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death-row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you …”
At this point, at least part of the audience burst into loud applause and whistles and stopped only because Williams continued with his question.
WILLIAMS: “… Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”
PERRY: “No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. … You kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.”
Here the audience erupted into very loud, prolonged applause with a couple of “whoops” thrown in. It was certainly the biggest audience reaction of the evening, so much so that Williams asked a good follow-up question on the fly.
WILLIAMS: “What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?”
PERRY: “I think Americans understand justice.”
Or at least they understand cheering.
Flash-forward five days to Monday, when there was another Republican debate, this time in Tampa, Fla., and sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express. The crowd was even more demonstrative in Tampa than in Simi Valley. It was filled with tea partiers, who don’t believe in hiding their feelings.
The moderator was Wolf Blitzer, who was trying to pin down Ron Paul, a libertarian and a physician, on the question of health care and what you do about people who refuse to buy insurance and then get deathly ill.
Libertarians believe in no government at most — OK, OK, a slight exaggeration — and Ron Paul was not about to endorse forcing people to buy health insurance. Blitzer hammered away with question after question about what would happen if a healthy young person refused to buy insurance.