How Michele Gets Her Groove Back

Bachmann should talk up the Tea Party, and stop attacking Perry. Matt Latimer on debate night strategies to stop this from becoming a two-man race.

09.22.11 3:45 AM ET

Just the first week of the fall TV season and already we’re stuck in reruns. Fox News and Google—almost as weird a combo as CNN and the Tea Party—are bringing us yet another Republican presidential forum. Just like the one a few of us braved last week. And the week before that.

Is it possible this is all being orchestrated just to give political reporters more frequent-flier miles?

Since most of the sane world will be watching the premiere of The Office and some show NBC is determined to shove down America’s throats named Whitney, here’s all you need to know about tonight’s debate. Governors Romney and Perry exchanged barbs that changed the dynamic of the race. Until next week. Oh, and there were some other people on stage in red-and-blue suit/tie/dress combinations who said things too.

How frustrating it must be for the other candidates, hanging around on stage until some reporter sends a pity question their way. Twisting the knife a little more deeply, Fox and Google even have decided to add another loopy long shot to the event—former governor Gary Johnson. Which means one more person will take up time saying things that don’t matter.

So how might the members of our Republican second tier make their precious moments on camera sparkle? A few thoughts:

Michele Bachmann—Nobody has been affected more dramatically by Rick Perry’s entry than the one-time Tea Party frontrunner. And it shows. In reprisal, the tenacious congresswoman is attacking Perry with vigor on everything from mandating HPV vaccines for teenage girls to illegal immigration to, well, waking up in the morning. This is a serious mistake. Bachmann needs Perry’s supporters to return to her should their current favorite falter. They won’t do that if Bachmann’s fingerprints are all over the ax that chops his candidacy to shreds. The smart thing she could do tonight is stick to her Tea Party–tested message and leave the other candidates alone. Even smarter, she could look for opportunities to come to Perry’s defense. Congresswoman, let the media do your dirty work. They’ve had more practice.

Herman Cain—After leaving the U.S. Navy, Cain held senior positions at some of the largest corporations in America—from Coca-Cola to Pillsbury to Burger King. He was a deputy chairman of the Federal Reserve and successfully turned around a struggling national pizza chain as its CEO. Sound interesting? Well, thank Wikipedia, which is doing a better job introducing him to the voters than he is. My advice for Cain tonight: blow off whatever question you’re asked—the answer won’t matter to the questioner anyway—look into the camera, and instead tell viewers, “Here are three things I want the American people to know about me and why I am running.” Americans have a strange quirk: they want to know someone before they give their vote to him.

Newt Gingrich—If the former speaker could erase his campaign’s first two weeks from voters’ memories, Men in Black–style, he would be in an enviable position: the only conservative who isn’t turning his primary opponents into punching bags. Alas, those two weeks did happen and it’s still a struggle for voters to give Newt a second look. Instead of running from his reputation as the undisciplined candidate with thousands of ideas, some less workable than others, Gingrich should embrace it. Be the one guy on stage who knows where all the bodies are buried in Washington and is ready to deploy a shovel. Discuss issues no one else has even thought about and ask the other candidates polite and probing questions while avoiding the temptation to engage in their fights. As the wise elder statesman, Gingrich might yet be able to capture some of the gravitas that his opening weeks took away.

Jon Huntsman—The Utah governor actually is in a worse position than Herman Cain. Republicans do know something about his candidacy—and it’s all bad. It might feel good to be the toast of the Esquire-NPR-New Yorker-Vogue-and-Vanity Fair set. But the last time most of them voted in a contentious primary, it was for Bill Bradley in 2000. Tonight, for starters, Huntsman might want to demonstrate that he is aware he is running for president in a Republican primary. He has a sterling résumé and seems like a decent guy, but so far even Snooki seems to have greater self-awareness than the strategists at Huntsman central.

Ron Paul—Nobody seems to think the Texas congressman is in the race to win it. Yet few candidates have a more devoted base of support. Paul also has available to him a sizable number of potential voters who might embrace a libertarian philosophy. Unfortunately he has yet to articulate that philosophy in a manner that makes any sense. Last week, for example, he was musing about a world without air-traffic controllers. That isn’t helping. If Paul ever hopes to preach beyond his well-organized choir, he might try by talking tonight about the philosophy of government that compelled him to make the race. Oh, and smile, take a breath, and relax. It would do wonders.

Rick Santorum—Not sure why it’s not clicking, but it isn’t. And it won’t. The best thing the combative former Pennsylvania senator could do tonight is pick the Cabinet seat he’d like best and start cramming mentions of it into every possible sentence. It also wouldn’t hurt to compliment the frontrunners’ ties.