The quiet, simmering fight for the Republican presidential nomination is about to break out into the open, when seven White House hopefuls take the stage at St. Anselm College for the first New Hampshire debate of the 2012 cycle.
The face-off may or may not offer up a momentum-shifting moment in the campaign. But it will begin to set the terms of the longer primary fight between Mitt Romney and the gang of lesser-known opponents looking to derail him.
The stakes are slightly different for each of the debaters. For Romney, the event is an opportunity to cement his status as the GOP frontrunner. For Tim Pawlenty, this is the best chance yet to present himself as an establishment alternative to Romney, and maybe start throwing some harder punches at the former Massachusetts governor.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker whose top advisers resigned last week, will be looking for political redemption. Other, less familiar faces – Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former pizza executive Herman Cain – will simply be looking to make a good impression with viewers who have never seen them before. (See also: Gingrich vows to 'endure' challenges)
Here are the five biggest questions POLITICO will be looking to answer at Monday’s CNN/WMUR/Union Leader debate:
Who swings hardest at Mitt Romney?
There are three big headlines that could come out of the debate: “Opponents pile on Romney”; “Opponents steer clear of attacking Romney”; and “Candidate X attacks Romney.”
With the former Massachusetts governor looking more and more like a legitimate frontrunner, his interactions with the rest of the GOP field will likely define the evening. So far, Romney has received pretty light treatment from other Republicans, taking occasional hits for the universal health care law he signed in Massachusetts, but never dealing with a sustained barrage of criticism. (See also: Romney tops two new polls)
That could change tonight – or not. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty took a ginger step toward hitting Romney ahead of the debate, going after the national health care law he called “Obamneycare” in a sign that the soft-contrast phase of the campaign may be ending. Even before that, some Republicans predicted that Rick Santorum, an underdog conservative known for his combative style, would come out against Romney with guns blazing. (See also: Pawlenty assails 'Obamneycare')
If Romney reprises his 2007 role as debate-night punching bag, it will both confirm his status as a solid frontrunner and seriously test his skills as a communicator. Romney has tried hard to stay above the fray, and his campaign’s response to criticism from Pawlenty suggests Romney will aim to continue doing just that. (See also: Mitt underestimated)
“Republicans should keep the focus on President Obama’s failure to create jobs and control spending,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Sunday.
There’s a fine line between being confident and on-message, and being arrogant and disengaged, and it’s one Romney will have to navigate carefully.
How will Newt Gingrich try to hit the reset button?
No other candidate needs a strong debate performance as desperately as Newt Gingrich. After losing almost his entire campaign staff, the former Georgia congressman will be trying to show that his foundering 2012 bid is more than a vanity exercise. (See also: Gingrich advisers resign en masse)
Gingrich has said that he’ll run a citizen-driven campaign for the presidency, free of traditional political consultants, but it’s not so clear what a people-powered debate performance looks like. In theory, Gingrich could outshine his opponents by force of argument and intellect. Before his campaign imploded, Gingrich’s policy knowledge, comfort on television and sheer verbal ability were expected to make him a big player in debates. (See also: Newt: 'This will be your campaign')
But Gingrich’s task now is tougher, since everything he does will be interpreted in light of the fact that he’s on the brink of political death. If he goes on the attack, he’ll look cornered and desperate. If he sticks to a careful and newsless script, analysts will simply ignore him. Being forced to give time-limited questions won’t make life any easier for the endlessly talkative Gingrich.
What’s more, viewers will be looking to Gingrich for some explanation of how things went so terribly wrong. Will this famously unapologetic candidate find it in himself to acknowledge that mistakes were made?
Will anyone remember Tim Pawlenty?
Tim Pawlenty is coming off a solid week on the campaign trail, delivering an economic speech that won applause on the right and caused conservative institutions like the Club for Growth, the Wall Street Journal editorial board and Jack Welch to sit up and take notice.
If last month’s South Carolina debate is any indication, Pawlenty may have a more difficult time distinguishing himself when he shares a stage with six other candidates.
Tonight is the first time during this campaign that Pawlenty and Romney will stand next to each other at the same event, allowing viewers to compare them side by side. It remains to be seen whether Pawlenty, who lacks Romney’s experience at the presidential level, can muster the gravitas to make that a positive contrast.
Perhaps even more dangerous for Pawlenty, however, are the five more marginal candidates who he’ll be appearing with. Pawlenty is Romney’s most formidable competitor, but he is not the most eye-catching one – that distinction likely goes to Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain, two camera-ready tea party candidates beloved by the cable news audience.
If another debate comes and goes without Pawlenty putting serious political points on the board, voters – and more importantly, donors – are going to start wondering if he really has what it takes to play at this level.
Can Michele Bachmann look presidential?
The Minnesota congresswoman is the lone candidate in Monday’s debate who has not formally announced for president. Yet even as an unofficial candidate, she’s already on track to have an impact on the race, hiring impressive advisers in Iowa and in Washington and priming her legendary online fundraising machine.
What we don’t know about Bachmann is how she’ll come off in front of a national audience that’s broader than her usual base of support. While she’s exceptionally media-savvy, Bachmann isn’t immune to miscues: recall her awkward response to this year’s State of the Union address, delivered haltingly via webcast and aired on CNN.
Bachmann has presented herself in recent days as a person who brings unique life experiences to the race, talking up her background as a tax attorney, a small business owner and a state legislator. Adviser Ed Rollins called Bachmann “so much more substantive” than Sarah Palin, the other leading conservative woman to whom Bachmann is often compared.
The New Hampshire debate is an opportunity for Bachmann to prove that she is a substantive person who’s fluent on the issues she says she cares about – and that she’s running to be president of the United States, not just of Fox News and the Ames straw poll.
Will Herman Cain give serious answers to serious questions?
He’s rising in the polls. He’s all the rage in Iowa. And Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza who has never served in elected office, has offered almost nothing in the way of a serious agenda.
A former radio talk show host and Georgia Senate candidate, Cain has been blessed with the gift of gab. He’s used it to great effect in this campaign, winning rave reviews at the first presidential debate and talking his way out of more or less anything resembling a policy question.
When National Review asked him how he’d handle Afghanistan, Cain said he wouldn’t offer an “instant-grits policy,” but would wait until he has “all of the facts.” At the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s summit in Washington this month, Cain offered this prescription for national competitiveness: “My China strategy is very simple: outgrow China.”
Cain’s rhetorical cocktail of folksy rhetoric, boilerplate conservative talking points and anti-Obama invective has served him well so far. To his biggest fans, it may not matter if he ever offers much beyond that. But if Cain is going to be more than a summer sideshow, the latest in a long string of flash-in-the-pan silly-season candidates, he’ll need to put some meat on his candidacy soon.