The Iowa debate is early in the campaign season, but it's crucial for the Republican presidential candidates who come out on top.
Ames, Iowa, is the site of Thursday's debate, the first time the major Republican candidates will be on stage together since June.
The only new face will be former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has struggled to make a dent since entering the race. Neither Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is expected to run, nor former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who still hasn't said anything about her plans, will be at the debate.
The star of the show is likely to be Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who's been riding a wave of momentum since her strong performance in the June debate in New Hampshire. Polling shows Bachmann running strong in Iowa and she is the favorite to win Saturday's Ames Straw Poll.
Bachmann's rise over the past two months ensures she will be on the receiving end of barbs from her rivals as they seek to slow her progress. How she handles the slings and arrows will be a major storyline to watch.
The other person to keep an eye on is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney enters the debate as the frontrunner for the nomination. But he won't be competing in the straw poll over the weekend and is de-emphasizing the Iowa caucuses in his plans to win the nomination. Expect the other people on stage to mock Romney's on-again, off-again plans in the state.
The Iowa caucuses are still months away, but debates are rare moments when voters pay attention long enough to compare and contrast. Any winner in this one gets media and money.