Neither fund raising nor the building of grass-roots organizations in key primary states is driving the Republican presidential race. Endorsements haven't mattered much either. Stump speeches have been of minimal importance. And policy papers—such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 59-point economic plan or ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's proposal for tax rate cuts—have been largely overlooked.
By far the biggest influence on the Republican contest has been the series of nationally televised debates. There have been more debates than ever—six so far—and they have attracted record audiences. The most recent debate on Sept. 22 on Fox News drew more than six million TV viewers, plus another six million watching on streaming video.
The debates have overwhelmed the Republican race. "They are about all there's been to the campaign," says Fox political commentator Brit Hume. After each debate the campaign has been frozen until the next one, except for arguments over issues spawned by the debates themselves....
The flurry of presidential debates is a cable television phenomenon that began after Fox and MSNBC were launched in 1996. The number of debates has increased each presidential cycle. This year's seventh debate, sponsored by the Washington Post and Bloomberg Television, is scheduled for Tuesday.
Before cable stepped in, the few televised debates were held just before the early caucuses and primaries and occasionally later if the battle for the nomination was undecided. TV debates before the election year were rare.
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