Tonight, at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., all of the major GOP candidates (except Jon Huntsman) will gather for a debate. Since several top-tier candidates skipped the last one, this is considered the informal kickoff to the 2012 race. I'll have a postdebate report tonight. In the meantime, here's a tip sheet on what to look for:
Will Romney Look Like a Front-Runner? Polls show former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ahead in every early primary and caucus state--Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. He's the clear front-runner, and he seems more on-message than the rest of the field. Will he also stand out in the debate? He had better, because there's only one direction to go if he doesn't.
Health Care or the Economy? Romney has wisely made the economy the centerpiece of his campaign. That's mostly what his announcement speech was about, and even if he doesn't always hit the right notes, it's the area he's best suited to run on and the issue of greatest concern to voters. But his fellow candidates won't do him any favors--they would like to talk about health care, his great weakness. Over the last week, several have attacked Romney, most prominently former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who assailed the new health care law as "Obamneycare." If the debate's focus is health care, Romney loses.
Can Cain Keep It Going? A Fox News focus group deemed Atlanta businessman Herman Cain the big winner in the last Republican debate, in South Carolina, and many other folks did, too. His performance brought a wave of interest in the Hermanator Experience, and Cain has enjoyed more momentum than anyone else since then. A recent Iowa poll had him tied for second place. But that debate didn't include several of the big names participating tonight. Now that he's drawing more than single digits in the polls, Cain will also draw some attacks. If he stands out again, he'll be an interesting guy to watch.
Bachmann Overdrive? Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is inching ever closer to a presidential run. She has hired Ed Rollins, former campaign manager for Ronald Reagan (and many others), and showed her fundraising prowess. A lot of people think she's poised to do well in Iowa, where she was born, and where her staunch social conservatism and tea party identity could appeal to caucus-goers. But how will she perform on stage? Bachmann's grasp of the facts can be a little shaky (U.S. history isn't her forte). On the other hand, she's the only woman participating, she's got a peppy charisma, and she could definitely stand out.
Will Newt Sink Like the Titanic? Nobody enters this debate in worst shape than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In fact, nobody's ever entered a debate in worse shape than Newt Gingrich.* Most of his staff quit on him last week, after his Tiffany's episode and his bizarre Greek cruise. If Newt is going to turn things around, he'd better make a big impression--because his ground game isn't going to win it for him.
Any Love for the Libertarian? Without former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson in the debate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is the lone libertarian. Paul is a presidential stalwart, and he has more endorsements and early money than in the past. But he hasn't yet made much of an impression in this race, which is odd because so much is going his way. Last cycle, it was a debate exchange with Rudy Giuliani on foreign policy that thrust Paul into the headlines. With Paul's unique views, that's always a possibility.
Will the Ghost of Palin or Weiner Appear? The two biggest stories in politics these last couple weeks have been former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's presidential flirtations and Anthony Weiner's creepy Twitter flirtations. Will either intrude on tonight's debate? You'd have to think they won't. But on the other hand, any candidate who takes a shot at Palin or Weiner is a candidate guaranteed to get plenty of press attention.
*Unless Anthony Weiner shows up.