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South Carolina debate: 5 storylines to watch

at 03:20 PM ET, 01/16/2012

Oh, debates, how we’ve missed you.


Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (L-R) take their positons before a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
The five remaining Republican candidates for president will be back at it tonight in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina starting at 9 p.m. on Fox News Channel.

We will be live-blogging the entire debate but to tide you over here’s a look at what to watch for tonight.

* Bain banter?: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have spent the majority of the past week blasting former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for his time spent with Bain Capital.

Many unaligned conservatives have blanched at those attacks, insisting that attacking Romney on his success in the free market is a mistake in a Republican primary.

But, Gingrich and Perry have staked a lot on the Bain attack to simply walk away from it now and it’s a near-certainty that the Fox moderators will ask them to repeat their critiques of Romney’s work in the private sector.

How forcefully they do so — and how Romney responds — is a fascinating window into whether either side sees the attack working.

* Mitt’s “ignore” strategy?: Romney has never been overly keen on getting into a back and forth with his rivals during debates. (He knows the wisdom of not punching down.)

Now that he is the clear frontrunner — with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire to his credit — it seems likely he will do his damndest to ignore his rivals on stage and instead spend all of his time talking about President Obama and the economy.

If Romney is directly attacked on Bain, however, it’s hard to imagine him totally ignoring the hit. But expect Romney to spend the vast majority of his time looking beyond — rhetorically, at least — the current Republican field.

* Time to talk: With former Utah governor Jon Huntsman ending his candidacy Monday morning , there will be only five candidates on stage tonight — meaning that everyone will have more time to talk.

Usually, more time is good news for longer shot candidates like Perry but, if past is prologue, the more focus is on the governor in a debate, the worse he does.

More speaking time could also help the likes of Gingrich and/or former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum forcefully make the case against Romney. Of course, it also should allow Romney more time to respond (if he wants) and to pivot — as he has done in every debate so far — to President Obama.

* Gingorum?: In a series of debates last fall, Gingrich and Santorum repeatedly allied themselves against the rest of the field. But, since both men went from also-rans to legitimate contenders, they have seemed less willing to team up for their shared political good.

The common enemy for Gingrich and Santorum is, obviously, Romney. But, they are also competing against one another for the tag of “consensus conservative” in South Carolina.

Do they turn their fire on one another in a fight to prove who is the most conservative? Or do they team up to hammer Romney? Given Romney’s luck in the race, the former scenario seems more likely.

* Health care? Anyone?: We are continually amazed at how little health care — and specifically the law Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts — has been mentioned in these debates.

At the start of the campaign, health care was seen as a giant Achilles heel for Romney due to the Massachusetts law’s similarities to the national legislation pushed by President Obama.

And yet, aside from the occasional mention here and there, Romney’s opponents have largely given him a pass on health care. Might that pass end tonight as his rivals look for some way to slow Romney’s seeming inevitable march to the nomination?

Read more on PostPolitics.com

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