02/19/2012 12:41 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2012

Back From Hiatus: Return of the GOP Debaters

After nearly a month-long hiatus, the reality television series known as the GOP presidential primary debates returns to the small screen on Wednesday, February 22nd. The cast of regulars, reduced to a final four, will step back onto the stage against a vastly altered political backdrop. As the players reassemble for their 20th debate of the season, what should viewers expect?

First and foremost, the debate will be a cage match between front-runner du jour Rick Santorum and semi-presumptive nominee Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich may attempt a desperate spotlight grab, and Ron Paul may generate the odd YouTube clip, but debate sponsor CNN can be counted on to give extra time, questions, and camera angles to the two alpha dogs atop the polls.

The Romney-versus-Santorum matchup presents a noteworthy contrast. Although both qualify as above-average debaters, Santorum's performances have been getting stronger in recent months, while Romney's are stuck in neutral. As a debater, Romney is generally effective, but rarely exciting. He can go for the jugular when he must, but he never seems to relish his hour upon the stage. Santorum, by contrast, displays an instinctive understanding of how live debates work, how their structure and reach can be harnessed for political advantage.

Rick Santorum has managed in these debates to pull off something of a personality makeover, at least as far as the press is concerned. He has recast his image from priggish moral scold to principled and authentic truth-teller. This transformation can largely be attributed to Santorum's debate performances, in which he has shown intelligence, forthrightness, and an admirable willingness to hold his opponents' feet to the fire.

Santorum the debater has been both lucky and smart. His luck comes in not peaking too early in the polls; this gave him time to develop some debate chops -- unlike Rick Perry, who had to perform under the microscope from the get-go. Back when there were eight debaters on the stage, Santorum was fortunate to be grouped in with the adults. He came across as a more plausible commander in chief than the likes of Perry, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann. Faint praise this may be, but it demonstrates that from the beginning Santorum has compared favorably against his rivals.

Beyond luck, Santorum has been clever in using the debates to mainstream his political persona. Santorum has let uber-conservative opponents like Perry and Bachmann stake out the social-issues turf, leaving him to focus on more presidential matters of foreign policy and economics. When the questions do turn to moral values, Santorum makes a conscious effort to spray Glade Mist over his earlier stink bombs. Example: Asked by Diane Sawyer how he would respond if his son told him he was gay, Santorum said, "I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it."

Never mind that Santorum had previously answered the question in words less suitable for a Hallmark card. Santorum's response to Sawyer resulted in a solid-gold sound bite, one that received a good deal of media play. The comment made Santorum sound reasonable and loving rather than judgmental and hectoring, especially to voters (and lazy journalists) who have not been paying close attention.

Smart candidates apprehend debates as an opportunity to put a happy face on hard positions. As a presidential contender in 1980, Ronald Reagan was widely perceived as a warmonger. In his debate with Jimmy Carter that year, Reagan made a point of invoking the word "peace" as often as he could -- five times in his first response alone. Like Reagan before him, Santorum has learned the value of taking your biggest negative and candy-coating it in bright colors.

If Santorum is the late-bloomer of the 2012 GOP debates, Mitt Romney remains exactly the same candidate today that he was when the series kicked off last summer. Romney's modus operandi has been to float above the petty squabbles of his fellow debaters and position himself as equal to the president. He tolerates each debate as a necessary evil; rather than reveling in the moment he just seems relieved to survive the ordeal.

For better or for worse, Romney is most animated in debates when he feels under attack. A negative illustration of this tendency occurred at the Las Vegas debate with Romney's whiny appeal to moderator Anderson Cooper to enforce the rules when Rick Perry wouldn't stop talking. With more positive results, Romney deftly stuck the knife into Newt Gingrich in the two Florida debates.

Romney's default position in debates is not aggression, however. It is weirdness, a quality exacerbated by the unscripted nature of these live, on-camera jousts. Has there ever been another presidential candidate with such a tin ear for the vernacular? At a rally in Michigan this past week, Romney waxed enthusiastic about his home state by gleefully declaring that Michigan's "trees are just the right height." This was a few days after he described himself as "severely conservative." Romney doesn't just speak English as if it's his second language; he behaves as if homo sapiens is his second species.

A path to victory does exist for Romney in the remaining Republican debates, but it is not one he is likely to venture down: exposing Santorum's record of fringe positions as an indicator of his unelectability. The pickings are vast, and so far Santorum has not been held to account for some of his more outrageous assertions. But would Romney dare to confront Santorum over women's rights, gay rights, reproductive rights, separation of church and state, et cetera? Not a chance, even though most Americans disapprove of Santorum's holier-than-thou moralizing -- and even though Romney's political moderation is more likely to defeat Barack Obama in November than Santorum's ideological purity.

In 1992 Saturday Night Live aired a memorable debate parody in which President George H.W. Bush (Dana Carvey) stands onstage listening to Bill Clinton (Phil Hartman) deliver his closing statement. The camera zooms in on Bush's face, then cuts to his point of view: what Bush sees is Clinton festooned in full hippie regalia: fringed leather vest, tie-dye shirt, love beads, headband, John Lennon sunglasses, a bong perched atop his lectern.

For Romney to dispatch his Republican rival, he must paint for the audience a similarly vivid picture, one that slaps Santorum with a different visual stereotype: the pious village elder of 17th century Salem in his tall Puritan hat and black robes, setting fire to the local harlots on the town green. Romney needs voters to see Santorum as an unelectable Mullah Rick, in much the same way that Bush saw Clinton as a stoner hippie. If Romney cannot make that case now, President Obama may well get a crack at it in the fall.