6 for ‘12: The New Hampshire Republican debate

at 08:03 AM ET, 06/13/2011

One in an occasional series examining six factors that will influence the 2012 election.

The Fix is headed to New Hampshire for Monday’s Republican presidential debate (and all the classic rock we can listen to in a 24-hour period).

But, while you’re waiting for the festivities to begin at 8 p.m. — and, yes, we will be live-blogging it! — check out six things to watch for tonight.

1. Mitt the target: This is the first debate in which former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is participating, and he will be the center of attention all night. To date in the race, Romney has ignored his opponents, choosing to focus exclusively on the economy and President Obama. It will be far harder to hue to that strategic imperative if he comes under direct attack, particularly from the likes of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty has already begun the attack, hitting Romney on the individual mandate contained in a health care law he signed as Bay State governor.

2. Newtiny, part deux: Days after losing the entirety of his senior staff, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) has to find a way to change the subject — and fast. The debate affords him a chance to do just that. The question is whether his new staff’s attitude to “let Newt be Newt” is a good one. Those who know the former speaker best broadly agree he is a tremendous mind, but one that needs leavening forces to weed out the bad ideas from the good. The man who takes the debate stage tonight will be the authentic Newt. But will Republican voters like what they see?

3. Bachmannia?: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is the buzziest candidate at the moment, winning rave reviews from conservatives everywhere she speaks. Debates are a different animal, however, and Bachmann will be tested in a way she hasn’t been during her time in Congress. What she has going for her is charisma and an ability to articulate the social conservative agenda without even trying. A strong performance in tonight’s debate would give Bachmann considerable momentum as she prepares to formally announce her bid. A weak performance, well, wouldn’t.

4. Breaking out of the pack: Unlike the first presidential debate, which was filled with second-tier (and lower) candidates, tonight’s affair features nearly every major player in the race. That means much less oxygen — and far fewer questions — for the likes of businessman Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas). With less chances, each man needs to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way. Watch for Santorum to lead the charge, putting his pull-no-punches style on display against the frontrunners.

5. Rules of the game: The moderator (CNN’s John King) and the questions he asks matter. So does his willingness to let the candidates bend the rules a bit to foster some actual debate. Romney is hoping for a heavy economic focus, while anyone not named “Romney” wants health care in general — and the Massachusetts law in particular — to be Topic A. Both issues will obviously be discussed. But at what length? And by whom? Debates do tend to be a series of canned statements. Occasionally, however, there are genuine moments where a candidate’s true character is revealed. Political junkies should root for as many of those moments as possible.

6. The non-attendees: Three candidates who could have a major impact on the 2012 nominating fight — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman — won’t be in tonight’s debate. But that doesn’t mean they won’t influence the proceedings. Palin has dominated the news in recent weeks with her Memorial Day bus tour and the subsequent release of more than 13,000 e-mails she sent as governor. Talk of Perry as candidate has picked up steam in recent weeks, while Huntsman spent his weekend in the Granite State. And, you can be certain that each of that trio or, at the very least, their political advisers, will be watching every moment of the debate — seeking to gauge whether there is room for their candidate in the field and how to best position him/her against the current crop of candidates.

Shays for Senate?: Republicans have another potential Senate candidate in Connecticut, with former congressman Chris Shays saying he is “very interested” in running for retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (I-Conn.) seat.

Shays, a moderate 10-term congressman who held down a very tough district until losing in 2008, told CQ-Roll Call that he is looking at the seat “very closely” but that he has some personal issues to work through.

Since leaving Congress, Shays has dealt with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt that resulted from fraud by his campaign manager. The campaign manager was later sentenced to three years in prison.

This is a tough seat for the GOP to win, but there is no shortage of interest. Wealthy 2010 Republican nominee Linda McMahon is making the rounds, and former Comptroller General David Walker has also shown interest.

Weiner scandal grows: Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) has stepped out of the spotlight for a leave of absence, but the scandal surrounding his flirtations with various women is only getting bigger.

Weiner rebuffed calls this weekend from Democratic leaders who want him to resign; instead, more and more photos of the congressman in various states of undress continue to surface.

This is exactly what the Democratic leaders were hoping to avoid with their concerted effort to call for his resignation. As long as Weiner is still in Congress, the appetite for more details of his scandal will be there. And we’re now entering the third week where this is the biggest news coming out of Congress.

Fixbits:

Republican voters appear to be getting more pragmatic, looking for someone who can beat Obama rather than someone who fits the ideological ideal.

Americans appears to want only smaller changes to Medicare.

Cain says Obama was “raised in Kenya.”

Former Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis has decided not to run against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), becoming the latest potential GOP candidate to bow out.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) makes his campaign for governor official.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) says the Texas GOP’s redistricting plan aims to get rid of the state’s white Democrats.

The first pictures of a recovering Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) have been posted on Facebook.

Perry says the Obama Administration is exporting abortion.

Huntsman’s soon-to-be presidential campaign trips over its feet a little, prematurely announcing the support of FedEx founder Frederick W. Smith.

Bachmann won’t say whether Pawlenty was a good governor.

Gingrich relaunches his presidential campaign with a foreign policy speech.

Must-reads:

Republican presidential candidates make bold right turns” — Paul West, Los Angeles Times

Mitt Romney makes 2012 pitch to N.H. Republicans after 2008 primary loss” — Michael Leahy, The Washington Post

To survive, state GOP must reinvent itself” — Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times

For Republicans, redistricting offers few gains” — Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times

 
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