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Preparations for the Iowa GOP presidential debate, Aug. 10, 2011. (AP)

Iowa GOP Debate: What To Expect

Aug 11, 2011

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Based on everything we've seen so far in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, what should we expect from the candidates at Thursday's debate at Iowa State University in Ames?

In the two-hour Fox News/Iowa GOP debate to start at 9 pm ET, Mitt Romney, the frontrunner, will likely stick tightly to his message, which is that President Obama has failed to lead, and his approach, which is to play it safe.

It's a traditional frontrunner's strategy against an incumbent president of the opposite party: target all your attacks on the man in the White House and give off the air that it's inevitable, just a matter of time, before you'll be the one facing him as your party's nominee.

Romney may have to revise that once Texas Gov. Rick Perry officially enters the race and immediately threatens what up till now was looking like Romney's fairly smooth path to the nomination. But for Thursday night, at least, Romney's still the presumptive frontrunner.

While Romney made it through the previous debate which took place in New Hampshire without being attacked for signing into law as Massachusetts governor health insurance legislation with an individual mandate, that could change Thursday.

That's because the Ames Straw Poll is Saturday and at least two of the eight people on stage tonight — Rep. Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, — are counting on a strong straw poll showing to sustain their efforts.

If they can do something tonight that makes Republican voters looking for a Romney alternative consider them, that could help them get the kind of straw poll success they seek.

Both Bachmann and Pawlenty have different challenges. Bachmann is the frontrunner among Iowa conservatives, boosted by the excitement she generates among self-styled "values voters" as well as Tea Party voters, sometimes the same people.

She emerged with her star shining more brightly after the New Hampshire debate. That was partly because she beat expectations which were fairly low.

She also made "news," dramatically announcing her presidential bid on stage even though the fact that she was on the stage that night meant that she already in the race that night.

But expectations this time will be higher and it's hard to see what "news" she'll be able to drop to positive post-debate headlines.

Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, faces perhaps the most critical 36 hours period of any of the candidates. After signaling a new aggressive stance against Romney before the New Hampshire debate, he pulled his punches during the debate, failing to go after Romney on what Pawlenty had derided as "Obamneycare."

In recent weeks, Pawlenty has once again indicated a feistier attitude toward Romney, criticizing him for not wading in more deeply into the debt-ceiling fight and using it as an occasion to question Romney as a leader.

The question is: will Pawlenty sustain these criticisms against Romney when they're standing a few feet from each other or will he once again retreat? His presidential hopes probably rests on the answer.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is very experienced at these debates, having now run in several different cycles. So he knows how to get his message across and it's a predictable message that's prized by fellow libertarians and has crossover appear to Tea Party supporters. End the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, rein in the Federal Reserve, get back to hard money and reduce the size of government to pay down the federal debt.

It's a message that plays well in Iowa but the voters most likely to respond to it have, by and large, already have. A debate is unlikely to change that.

The debate will be the first one for Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and a former Obama administration ambassador to China. Huntsman is polling in the single digits and many of the stories his campaign has generated have been about missteps and internal dissension.

The debate gives him a chance to try to turn that around but it's only a sliver of a chance since he'll be sharing the stage with seven other candidates. It's hard to see the debate doing much for Huntsman's chances.

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, is good at launching snappy soundbites and expect more from him tonight about Obama being a the "greatest food stamp president in history."

But his campaign's dysfunction became the dominant story from shortly after he entered the race. Even a great debate performance probably wouldn't undo the damage that's already been done. Anyone who's followed his career already knows he's one of the glibbest politicians alive. That won't come as news.

Then there are the even longer shots for the nomination.

Herman Cain, the former pizza company executive, got into trouble in the New Hampshire debate when he tried to clarify earlier remarks in which he sounded like he wouldn't have Muslims in his administration. After his clarification, it still sounded like he would put Muslims under greater scrutiny than he would Christians. While Cain was once showing some momentum in the polls, that has ceased.

Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, holds the sort of religious and social views popular with Iowa conservatives. But, unlike Cain, he has drawn little excitement. And it's difficult to see him breaking out as he shares the stage with seven other people.

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