There are those of us who watch politics the way other devotees tune into sports. Instead of checking out box scores, we scan the poll numbers. In both worlds, the players become celebrities - we need to know about their strategies, their families, their back stories. The fumbles are often the favorite parts of the highlight reels. And like sports enthusiasts, we get into our favorite seat, a preferred drink in hand, to live the thrill of vicarious battle through televised contests.
Tonight is one of those contests: the final GOP debate before the Iowa Caucus. As exhausted as we are by the endless string of GOP Presidential debates, we're also going to miss this ritual. Caucus night will feature the same cast, taking turns to celebrate and concede, but future debates will see a dwindling number of these familiar faces. The stage has felt empty without Herman Cain - and he was only the first to disappear.
Now that Trump's trumpeted event is a no-go, tonight is this reality show's season finale, until a new cast lines up in 2012. So, we will be tuning it.
Tuning in to what? Mitt Romney, who has zinged the word zany at Newt Gingrich, has often held fire and held himself above the fray in the actual debates. Rick Perry tries to throw punches, but he's no longer in the center of the ring. There's no doubt that Gingrich -- who already had a habit of answering questions that weren't asked of him when he was a forgotten 2nd tier candidate -- will seize every moment at the mic as one of the frontrunners.
But maybe, just maybe, this will be the Ron Paul debate. The Ron Paul surge may or may not tip the scales in Iowa -- Rachel Maddow argues it won't even matter if it does - but it makes for good drama. First, in the carousel of candidates that have shared center stage with Romney, Paul hasn't had his chance. I had prophesied that Rick Santorum would be up next - and while I still maintain it's not far-fetched that he'll get his moment, turns out I was wrong to deal Ron Paul to the bottom of the deck.
To be clear, it's not that I don't think Paul deserves his moment in the sun. The man has devoted followers, has won, placed and showed in a series of significant straw polls, and sticks to his guns in surprising and consistent ways. It just seemed that the GOP primary voter found some of his consistencies - his opposition to foreign aid to Israel, to the Patriot Act and to the wars - upsetting. But if they can briefly look past Bachmann's inexperience, Perry's ineptitude and Gingrich's infidelities, why not give Paul a second glance?
Here's hoping that tonight is the Ron Paul debate - the one where he gets his equal share of time in the spotlight, the one where the other candidates target him. If he does, it will be an interesting string of ideas that would make both parties question some of their sacred cows. And it would prove that if you wait around long enough, everyone gets their shot.
And who knows? There could still be another twist and turn. If he then goes the way of the other candidates -- taking their turn at center stage, then immediately sagging back to the sidelines - then, we'll finally see that Santorum Surge I've been hoping for.
Either way, I'll be tuning in tonight, and can't wait to see what the new season - starting January 3rd -- will bring.
Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."