The weekend marks the unofficial ringing of the opening bell of the 2012 GOP presidential contest. The Ames Straw Poll is on Saturday. The Iowa State Fair is in season. And the Ames debate is tonight. Here are “pre game” questions going into tonight’s debate for each of the relevant contenders.
1. Mitt Romney: Will he speak to Iowans?
Romney has put one foot in and one foot out in Iowa. His poll numbers remain stable. He has a base of supporters left over from his second place finish in 2008. And with Rick Perry and Sarah Palin signaling that they will enter the race, Romney may want to play in Iowa. A surprising first or second place finish in would go a long way in vanquishing his opponents. Tonight, will Romney tailor his answers toward Iowans or act as the frontrunner he is and cautiously repeat his low-risk talking points?
2. Michele Bachmann: How well can she play defense?
Unlike the last debate, Bachmann is likely to be attacked. Can she be calm and cool under the limelights as her opponents turn the heat on her?
3. Tim Pawlenty: Can he show some life and a backbone?
Pawlenty’s campaign began to derail when he looked like a wimp in New Hampshire by refusing to call Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan, “ObamneyCare,” which he did the day before when Romney was not present in the room. Will he be strong and attack Bachmann to her face? If so, will it galvanize his supporters or turn off Iowans who have a reputation for not liking people going negative?
4. Ron Paul: Will he say something that will push him over the top at the Straw Poll?
Can he break through the clutter and sharpen his message to motivate more people to vote for him in Saturday’s Straw Poll? In past debates, Paul has sounded professorial and has not had the opportunity to remind the audience that he has been right on fiscal and some foreign policy issues and the Republican party has swung toward his views in recent years. It is safe to say that if either Pawlenty or Bachmann finish below Paul on Saturday, their campaign will be severely wounded.
5. Herman Cain: Can he combine likeability and substance?
During the first South Carolina debate, Cain was likeable and hit the right notes. He performed spectacularly well. With more top-tier contenders at the second debate, Cain struggled with policy issues, and his performance was not as good. Saturday is crucial to his campaign’s fortunes. He has generated more buzz than candidates like Pawlenty. He has a record of turning around businesses that many thought were headed toward bankruptcy, which can present a sharp contrast to President Obama. Can he combine his affability and charm with some meaty substance that will make more people not just like him, as evidenced by his consistency atop Gallup’s ‘positive intensity’ rankings, but also believe he can have a chance of winning the nomination?
6. Newt Gingrich: Can he revive his campaign?
Gingrich has been well-received in Iowa. He has said he will not go negative on other candidates. Will he give a debate performance that will get him back into the conversation as a contender?
7. Jon Huntsman: Will he attack Romney?
This is his first debate of this cycle and the first time he is on stage with other candidates. His campaign effectively starts tonight. If he doesn’t directly attack Romney to his face, he risks being branded weak like Pawlenty. Huntsman needs to knock out Romney in New Hampshire, and tonight’s debate, for him, may be directed at voters in states like New Hampshire and Florida for Huntsman has, at this point, decided not to partake in the Iowa Caucus.
8. Rick Santorum: Will he attack Perry?
Will Santorum try to hurt Perry and help himself by attacking Perry for his back and forth on issues related to gay marriage and abortion?
9. Sarah Palin: Will she make news?
She made news yesterday by announcing her bus tour will resume Friday at the Iowa State Fair. Some of her fervent supporters have joked on Twitter that she should be in attendance at the debate. Will she issue a statement, tweet something, or do something that will make news during or after the debate? Will she fact-check or provide react to anything that may be said about her during the debate?
10. Rick Perry: Will he respond to attacks?
If Perry is attacked during the debate, will he provide rapid response commentary or issue a statement defending himself? In the 24-hour media cycle, he may have to in order to define himself on his own terms as he gears up for an important announcement this Saturday at the RedState Gathering in Charleston, South Carolina.