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The ABC/Yahoo Iowa Debate: What to Watch For

at 05:33 PM ET, 12/10/2011

No days off!

That’s the motto of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates (and the people that cover them) with only 24 days left before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.


FILE - In this Nov. 22, 2011, file photo Republican presidential candidates former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talks with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at a Republican presidential debate in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
The final Iowa sprint begins in earnest tonight with a debate at Drake University sponsored by, among others, ABC and Yahoo. Six candidates will be participating — all of the major contenders with the exception of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman who failed to meet the minimum requirements to be included. (Huntsman has ignored Iowa to focus his energy on New Hampshire.)

The debate gets started at 9 p.m. eastern time — and the Fix will be live-blogging every minute of it! Until then, check out our viewer’s guide to the festivities below.

* Center-stage Newt: The former House Speaker built his remarkable political comeback in the race on the back of his strong debate performances. But, he was always a second or third fiddle in past gatherings, more able to shine thanks to diminished expectations. There will be none of that tonight as Gingrich will take the debate stage as the unquestioned Iowa (and national?) frontrunner.

Unlike businessman Herman Cain who struggled badly once he went from nowhere to center stage in the race (and the debates), Gingrich is someone who is more used to the glare of the national spotlight and should fare better as a result.

Still, Gingrich’s tried and true debate strategy — ignore the question asked, attack the questioner etc. — may not play as well (or at all) when he is viewed through the frontrunner lens.

* Romney as uncomfortable attack dog: In every debate in which he has participated, the former Massachusetts governor has been the class of the GOP field: quick on his feet, measured and presidential.

But tonight’s debate poses a different challenge for Romney than the debates that have come before it. Because he has been the race’s favorite — if not it’s frontrunner — for much of the past year, Romney has never before been forced to play attack dog against one of his opponents. (Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry got into it earlier this fall but it was, generally, Perry taking the fight to Romney not the other way around.)

With Gingrich leading in the polls and pledging to stay positive, the onus will be on Romney to draw contrasts with the former Speaker. Looking back on the 2008 debates, it’s clear that Romney will throw a punch if strategy dictates it, but he’s never seemed terribly comfortable doing so.

Remember that Romney is, at his core, a rule follower. In a polite debate, he does well because there are established rules that he can perfect and stick to. In a debate that devolves into a street fight, Romney can struggle. (The awkward touching of Perry on the shoulder being a prime example.)

Can Romney win an impolite debate?

* WWRPD (What will Ron Paul do)?: The Texas Republican is, without question, a top tier contender in Iowa. (Ask people who have spent considerable time on the ground in the state and they will tell you Paul’s organization will almost certainly help him overperform his poll numbers.)

What also makes Paul worth watching tonight is his transparent dislike for Gingrich. Remember that it was Paul who started the Gingrich bashing in Iowa with an ad that labels the former House speaker as a serial exaggerator and hypocrite. Paul explained the necessity of that ad in stark terms; “I have to expose [Gingrich] for what he’s been doing over the years,” the Texas Republican told reporters.

If Paul goes aggressively at Gingrich tonight, he could well make Romney’s job easier.

* Perry, maybe (finally)?: The Texas governor has effectively sidelined himself with his less-than-impressive — with the holiday season rapidly approaching we are feeling very charitable — debate performances to date.

But with the recent lull in debates, there is chatter that Perry’s spending — more than $4 million by his campaign and the super PAC supporting him in Iowa alone — is starting to work. He’s still running fourth in most Iowa polls behind Gingrich, Romney and Paul but he’s edging into double digits.

Another flop of a debate performance would effectively squash any minute chance Perry has at making a comeback. But, expectations are so low for the Texas governor that even in a mediocre performance might convince people he’s the last genuine conservative with a chance to win. (Of course, his “eight judges on the Supreme Court” gaffe isn’t exactly a confidence-inspiring way to enter debate day.)

The Republican debate: Where and when to watch

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