Take a Shot at Chris

Unless the Republican candidates prepare for what’s coming, the winner of their debate tomorrow will be Hillary Clinton. To prevent that result, the candidates have to do what Republicans’ campaign consultants have always prevented: they need to take on the media itself.

This debate — important most to Fred Thompson who is making his first appearance — will soon be forgotten in the tsunami of campaign interviews, speeches and rubber chicken dinners these gents are trying to surf. Unless.

There are two “unlesses” waiting tomorrow: unless the candidates allow moderator Chris Matthews to manhandle them, and unless they seize the opportunity to score with Republican voters on an issue that is lurking behind every debate, every television report and newspaper story.

The most important part of the answer — and not just for tomorrow — is for the candidates to take on the reporters as much as they take on each other. It’d be great fun, and it would satisfy a great Republican hunger to see some of the media mentionables poked and prodded on their own biases and foibles.

Shocking as it may seem, the New York Times got it wrong in its effusive coverage of the Clinton campaign. In a political blog last Friday, Patrick Healy wrote, “No one is a louder, zestier cheerleader for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential prospects than her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe…” The host of tomorrow night’s debate, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, at least equals and sometimes surpasses McAuliffe.

Matthews is an over-the-top liberal, a brazen cheerleader for Clinton. He can also be a bully. Remember the incident about two years ago when he reduced Michelle Malkin nearly to tears? And how Zell Miller gained instant hero status for asking Matthews if he wanted to take that discussion outside?

To beat Chris Matthews the candidates don’t need to punch him in the nose. But they need to do two things. First, they need to follow Jon Stewart’s example.

In what left Matthews squealing that it was his worst interview ever, The Daily Show’s hyperactive (but not hyperliberal) Jon Stewart’s interview of Matthews on his new book  not-so-gently poked fun at Matthews’ outlook on life. If — with humor — any of the candidates can take a few shots at Matthews and the premise of his questions, they can come out as the winner.

One of last week’s press releases from the Romney campaign set up tomorrow’s debate in Matthew’s terms, labeling Giuliani a “big city big spender.” Giuliani, addressing the Americans for Prosperity event, implicitly took a shot at the President and Congress saying, “We lost control of Congress because we were just like the Democrats as far as spending is concerned – shame on us." Capitalizing on that, Matthews will try to bait the candidates into answers that criticize each other in the worst terms, and do the same to the president. The economic questions — such as Mike Huckabee’s tax record, the costs of Romneycare and whatever bizarre statement comes out of Ron Paul — could result in harsh distinctions.

To counter that, they have to adapt the Gipper’s Eleventh Commandment to the 2008 race. Competition is essential, but there’s a huge difference between slapping a pal on the wrist and blowing him away. If Mitt Romney is asked a question meant to criticize Rudy Giuliani’s economic record, he needs to answer by saying, “Hey, he and I differ on these things, but I know how hard it can be to deal with that question in a government that has been mired in liberal policies for decades.” Take a shot at Hillary’s “baby bonds” proposal rather than creating a sound bite that Hillary can use in a campaign commercial next year.

Matthews’ second goal, to tie the candidates to George W. Bush’s appalling spending record, is easier to handle. An easy chance to avoid that will come when Matthews asks what to do about SCHIP — the State Childrens’ Health Insurance Program — the renewal and expansion of which the president just vetoed.

SCHIP should be labeled a middle-class entitlement program. It’s one of the things President Bush has gone along with too long, and has now seen the danger in. The candidates should talk about SCHIP — supporting the veto — and promise they will stop the expansion of middle-class entitlements. Which Hillary won’t.

Another questioner will be CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo who is not known to be a shouting liberal like Matthews, and can be counted on to be well-prepared with tough questions. She is a business reporter and not — so far — identified as a part of Team Clinton. If the candidates don’t belittle her questions as they do Matthews’, Bartiromo’s questions may only provide the opportunity to display economic knowledge. And to bore the heck out of the audience. Which is what Fred Thompson can’t afford to do.

Because this is Thompson’s first debate, the result he needs is to be either the winner, or clearly among the top three. To do that, he’ll have to employ every bit of wit and stage presence he has to top Matthews. There is an opportunity here for Thompson that he — or Romney or Rudy — can seize. Any one of them could plant the cornerstone of a campaign theme that could take him to the nomination and to the White House.

As I’ve written  one of the ground truths of politics is that the Republican base is practically begging to be fired up about the mainstream media’s political activism. They know something is badly wrong with the media, its obvious bias, and the fact that many such as CBS, NBC, ABC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post are in the campaign business, not the news business. Because Republicans have not taken the media on, Americans can’t quite put their finger on it or what to do about it.

Tomorrow’s debate gives the best opportunity yet to start taking on the media and doing so can put one of the candidates on the path to a real breakout in the polls. It will defy the advice of a hundred million dollars of campaign consultants’ advice. And it’s an opportunity that may not come again soon.

Poke fun at Chris Matthews. If any candidate can do even a little of what Jon Stewart did, that’s the only thing anyone will remember from this debate.