After a break, the Republicans are resuming their intense debate schedule with one on ABC tomorrow (Saturday) night and a second on Fox on the 15th. Indeed, these will be the first open-topic, all-candidate debates in a month. And they'll take place only three weeks before the Iowa Caucuses. Voters, at least in the early states, are about to get involved.
That said...I don't think I can agree with the NYT's Michael Sheer, who says that these two debates "are shaping up to be the most important...yet." Yes, primary debates can be important, but remember that right now the campaigns are intensifying in Iowa and New Hampshire, and so the debates and later debate-driven news coverage must compete with a blizzard of TV ads, candidate appearances, and grass-roots campaign organizations. So while they could be important, it's less likely.
As it turns out the single most important debate of the cycle was probably the very first one, way back in May -- a debate that Mitt Romney skipped. Why was it important? The five candidates there included Gary Johnson, who performed badly, and Herman Cain, who trotted out his act to a national audience for the first time and was rewarded with a Fox News post-debate panel who loved him. Think about it: if Johnson had "won" that debate and Cain lost, it's very possible that Cain would have been the Maury Taylor of this cycle, rarely getting invited to debates and barely being treated as a real candidate, while Johnson could have secured a solid place as a serious candidate and, perhaps, threatened Ron Paul's hold on the libertarian vote. While none of Cain, Johnson, or Paul was likely to win anyway, that debate really did shape the visible portion of the contest for the next six months.
Next? The debate in which Tim Pawlenty inexplicably walked away from his "Obamneycare" attack line, along with Pawlenty's subsequent failure to rally back, especially in the last debate before the Ames Straw Poll. The debates were not the only factor in Pawlenty's demise, but they surely played a significant role.
And then, of course, the various Rick Perry disasters, culminating in the infamous Third Agency Oops death moment. As with Pawlenty, there was more to Perry's demise than just the debates, but they surely did quite a bit to undermine him.
It's possible that one of these debates will matter as much, but again, it's much less likely now that the rest of the campaign has kicked in, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. So while I'll be watching (and, as usual, tweeting) the debates, and you never know when something spectacular could happen -- and Sheer could well be correct that these may be nasty debates -- my bet is that we've already seen the most important moments.