GOP debate in Florida: What to watch for

at 04:01 PM ET, 09/12/2011

For the second time in five days, eight Republican candidates for president will gather on a debate stage — this time in the all-important state of Florida.


Republican presidential candidates will debate tonight in Florida. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

The proceedings get started at 8 pm eastern time on CNN and we will be live-blogging every minute of it right here! But, what do you do to kill time before tonight?

Never fear. Below you’ll find our Cliff Notes version of what you should watch for tonight. See you at 8!

* Is Rick ready?: Texas Gov. Rick Perry cleared the twin hurdles of credibility and seriousness during last week’s California debate — but not by all that much. His answers on climate change and, especially, Social Security were meandering and insufficient — keeping both issues alive for his opponents.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann have signaled in recent days their belief that Perry is vulnerable on Social Security and will almost certainly go after him on the issue. Perry must — we repeat must — have a better and more definitive answer on the issue this time around. If he struggles to effectively answer the question, he could take a serious hit to his momentum in the contest.

* Romney as attack dog: Romney has emerged as a winner in each of the first three Republican debate thanks to his steady performance and message discipline. He rarely takes his focus off of President Obama and the economy and even more rarely responds to attacks from his Republican rivals.

But, Romney is now in a different place in the race with yet another national poll out today suggesting he is now running behind Perry. While Romney has shown an ability to attack during his last bid for president, he has never seemed particularly comfortable doing it. That has to change tonight since Perry made clear in his first debate appearance last week that he is ready, willing and able to take on all comers. (He attacked Texas Rep. Ron Paul!)

The bar for Romney to win this debate isn’t simply set at survival; he needs to find ways to slow Perry too. And that means going on offense.

* Now or never for Bachmann: In last week’s debate, Bachmann was absolutely invisible. And polling continues to show her support badly eroding from its heights earlier this summer. Bachmann and her team know that if she wants to re-assert herself in the race tonight is the night.

The debate is being co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express and being billed as the Tea Party debate. If ever there was a time that Bachmann would be playing in front of a home crowd, this is, presumably, it. Whether or not she gets a large number of questions from the moderators, she must find ways to insert herself into the conversation between Perry and Romney. If she can’t, it’s hard to see how she can reclaim her top-tier candidate status anytime soon.

* A Ron Paul surprise?: The Texas Republican has often touted himself as a tea party candidate before being associated with the tea party was cool. Paul’s positions on things like the economy and the Federal Reserve should be quite popular with the tea party crowd — if he gets a chance to explain them. We have written before that Paul is running a smarter, better organized and more professional campaign than he did four years ago — and his standing in polls reflect that his base of support has grown. Could this debate be Paul’s moment in the sun?

* The tea party x-factor: Members of the tea party as well as Republicans from around the country will have a chance to ask questions of the candidates tonight. That means we may see some off-the-beaten-path subjects come up or, at the very least, questions asked in ways that force the candidates to jump off their prepared scripts. The format will also make it more difficult for the likes of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to dismiss the questions asked of him and instead answer whatever question he wants.

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