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Season finale? How debates have become the ultimate 'event' TV

By Steve Krakauer, CNN
updated 2:23 PM EST, Wed February 22, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The 19 GOP presidential debates have become key moments in the campaign
  • Many voters say they decide who to vote for based on the debates
  • The seventh CNN debate is at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Mesa, Arizona

CNN LIVE: Tune in Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET for the last presidential debate before Super Tuesday, the CNN/Arizona Republican Party Debate hosted by John King. Follow it on Twitter at #CNNDebate and on Facebook at CNN Politics. For real-time coverage of the Arizona and Michigan primaries, go to CNNPolitics.com, to CNN apps or to the CNN mobile website.

Mesa, Arizona (CNN) -- It's been 26 days since the candidates left the stage at the last CNN debate in Jacksonville, Florida, and the growling hunger pangs of the media have grown louder even as the candidates grow weary.

There have been 19 Republican presidential debates so far, and while some may have debate fatigue -- including a few candidates -- the forums have nevertheless proved to be illuminating experiences. They have garnered sky-high TV ratings and have become "event" television. They have helped to define several candidates while others fall from grace in front of the live cameras.

But for many voters, it has been the debates -- especially those that have preceded a primary or caucuses -- that have become the deciding factor when they choose who they want as the GOP nominee. They have provided a window into each would-be nominee, and offered insights into how they act under pressure. According to exit polls, many voters make up their minds after watching a debate.

What has made the debates the fuel to feed the media's insatiable yearning for political fare? The storylines that have emerged have made the events essential viewing for political junkies and casual observers alike. Remember a fiery Newt Gingrich pushing back on marriage accusations, a tough Mitt Romney hitting Rick Santorum hard on social issues, a passionate Ron Paul pressing the Obama administration on foreign wars. Michele Bachmann and the HPV vaccine. And then there was Herman Cain and 9-9-9 ...

The debates return Wednesday night in Mesa, Arizona, as CNN partners with the Republican Party of Arizona to bring America the final debate before Super Tuesday, and what may be the final debate of the season.

Ahead of Wednesday's showdown, here's a recap of the last six major CNN debates, and what they could mean for this week's episode:

2011: GOP contenders' first debate

Manchester, New Hampshire, June 13

Biggest storyline: Before Rick Perry had even entered the race, seven GOP candidates debated in the first offering to feature all major candidates. Rep. Michele Bachmann established herself as a major player, while former Gov. Tim Pawlenty gave a subdued performance, refusing to attack Mitt Romney.

Key moments: "Using the term 'Obamneycare' was a reflection of the president's comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan."
-- Pawlenty.

"I filed today my paperwork to seek the office of the presidency of the United States today."
-- Bachmann.

Post-debate fallout: Bachmann's strong performance started a surge that culminated with the Iowa straw poll victory. Pawlenty's weak showing started his spiral downward, ending with him dropping out of the race and endorsing Romney.

Best of the CNN/Tea Party GOP Debate

Tampa, Florida, September 12

Biggest storyline: In a debate co-sponsored by elements of the tea party movement, Perry may have been the front-runner coming in, but he was hammered by Bachmann and Rick Santorum over the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

Key moments: "To have innocent little 12-year-old girls to be forced to have government injections through an executive order is just flat-out wrong."
-- Bachmann

Post-debate fallout: Perry's standing as the front-runner took an immediate and dramatic hit, with Romney taking over. Perry fell from 41% before the debate to 14%, with Romney moving from 28% to 51%.

Fiery GOP debate in Las Vegas

Las Vegas, October 18

Biggest storyline: Herman Cain's sudden surge to the front of the pack was set in stone as he hammered home the 9-9-9 plan. His rivals attacked.

Key moment: "The reason that our plan is being attacked so much is because lobbyists, accountants, politicians -- they don't want to throw out the current tax code and put in something that's simple and fair."
-- Cain.

Post-debate fallout: Cain's surge came to an end, as far more scrutiny came to the 9-9-9 plan directly after the debate (as well as other, personal, issues). Also, the sparring between Romney and Rick Santorum was a sign of things to come between the two.

Cain calls CNN's Wolf Blitzer wrong name

Washington, November 22

Biggest storyline: A debate that focused on foreign policy saw Newt Gingrich open himself up to a potential problem over amnesty, while his rivals pounced. Meanwhile, Rep. Ron Paul established himself as the man on an island when it came to some major GOP issues.

Key moment: "I am prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but finding a way to give them legality so as not to separate them from their families."
-- Gingrich. (He did.)

Post-debate fallout: Gingrich's surge continued, but rivals focused on this perceived weakness going forward. Meanwhile, Cain established a new nickname: "Blitz."

SC debate fiery and fierce

Charleston, South Carolina, January 19

Biggest storyline: What may be one of the most memorable debate moments of the cycle occurred right off the top, with Gingrich attacking the media over claims made by his ex-wife. Santorum also took an opportunity to take on Gingrich over his "grandiose" ideas.

Key moments: "I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
-- Gingrich.

"Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich."
-- Santorum.

Post-debate fallout: A standing ovation from the crowd signaled the wave of support that was to come for Gingrich, as he easily won the South Carolina primary and forever changed the race, largely thanks to this single debate.

Candidates clash at GOP debate

Jacksonville, Florida, January 26

Biggest storyline: Romney went on the attack, battling Gingrich at every twist and turn. Santorum knocked Gingrich again for a particular grandiose idea, about space.

Key moments: "My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don't use a term like that."
-- Romney

"Those are things that sound good and maybe make big promises to people, but we've got to be responsible in the way we allocate our resources."
-- Santorum

Post-debate fallout: Gingrich slipped, and Romney won Florida. But the steady Santorum performances in these debates opened the door for the former senator to take the role of the non-Romney. He has ridden the wave to huge success and currently sits atop the national polls.

---


And now we head to Arizona, a crucial state to the GOP in 2012 (and currently going through its own political sex scandal).

Wolf Blitzer tweeted this week: "Just boarded flight to Phoenix & someone said: 'Thanks for all the good entertainment over the years.' Entertainment?"

The debates have been substantive, politically relevant and issue-based. But they have been, maybe more so than other cycles, entertaining as well. On Wednesday, you don't want to miss the season finale.

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