Debate Preview: GOP Presidential Candidates Will Participate in Crucial and High Stakes Debate That May Determine Nominee

Two storylines have dominated the “boom and bust” 2012 Republican presidential contest: the importance of nationally televised debates and political comebacks. And as the seven presidential candidates debate tonight in Sioux City, Iowa in a debate, sponsored by FOX News, that will be the last before the nation’s first nominating contest in Iowa on Jan. 3, Newt Gingrich, who leads in most state and national polls, is a reminder of how important debates have been this cycle, as he has used strong debating performances to resuscitate a campaign that many left for dead last summer.

In a tough but fair and extremely well conducted interview by Katie Obradovich of The Des Moines Register this morning, Gingrich said that when his campaign nearly imploded last summer, it was comparable to watching a ship capsize before righting itself. Gingrich said he and his wife, Callista, even discussed getting out of the campaign.

“Callista and I discussed it two or three times,” Gingrich said, before adding that Caliista “kept saying get to the debates.”

Gingrich said that people in both establishments do not like him because, he “will break up their system,” and that is why he is resonating with conservative and Tea Party voters.

“I’m a genuine change agent,” Gingrich said. “I’m an outsider even though I have served in Washington.”

Gingrich said that if Romney “can’t carry New Hampshire, the race is over for his candidacy” and that his goal all along was to get to South Carolina after surviving and advancing in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Gingrich acknowledged, though, that his strong performances in the nationally televised debates have caused supporters to flock to his campaign.

“I can’t explain it,” Gingrich said. “The country seemed to talk to itself over the last six weeks [about issues and ideas] and, all of a sudden, we began to gain supporters.”

Gingrich acknowledged that the proliferation of social media applications has allowed him to run a “pretty unconventional campaign” and that campaigning for president was like a “marathon that turns out to be 262 dashes.”

When asked about his vow not to tear down other candidates, Gingrich said, “I don’t regret it but there are moments when I chafe under it” before acknowledging that, during the last debate, he could not pass up an opportunity to remind Romney that had he not lost his election against Ted Kennedy in 1994 that Romney would have been a career politician.

“I couldn’t help myself,” Gingrich said. “But I shouldn’t have done it.”

Gingrich said the campaign will release a “Merry Christmas” advertisement featuring Callista and himself and that the spate of attacks ads flooding the airwaves is “so discordant with the spirit of Christmas.”

Gingrich also said that despite his having some lavish tastes with his personal money, he can be trusted to be a steward of the taxpayer dollars because he balanced the budget as House Speaker. Gingrich also acknowledged that the speakership is an unusually demanding job because “you are pulled in 100 different directions” and implicitly argued that the presidency may be a better fit for his skills than leading the House of Representatives.

What to look for in tonight’s debate: 

There will be two three-person battles on the stage tonight.

Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul are in the top three in every Iowa poll. Paul and Romney have viciously attacked Gingrich during the last week and will continue to do so tonight.

Will Gingrich stay above the fray even if it risks making him look weak? Gingrich is gambling that Iowans, who have historically disdained negative advertising, will punish the other candidates for their attacks but Gingrich, who perhaps most loves political combat, must be careful to not jump into the fray and risk becoming a real life version of the caricature that his opponents are framing him as.

While Messrs. Romney, Gingrich, and Paul battle to stay at the head of the field, there is another battle brewing among former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and former Pennsyvlania Senator Rick Santorum.

Iowa’s social conservatives and Evangelical voters dominate the state’s caucus and if these voters coalesce behind one candidate, they can propel that candidate to a surprise election night victory much in the way they did for Mike Huckabee in 2008.

In this election cycle, Perry, Bachmann, and Santorum have the best chance at consolidating the social conservative vote but, as of now, the social conservative vote seems to be splitting three ways among them.

It is most likely that among Perry, Bachmann, and Santorum, only one of those candidates will be viable after Iowa. And for any of one of these three candidates to consolidate the social conservative vote, they will need to take votes from the other two. While Perry and Bachmann, both of whom have led polls in Iowa in the past, are hoping voters give them a second chance, Santorum is hoping that his first burst of momentum starts now and peaks on Jan. 3.

How fiercely these candidates differentiate themselves from or attack each other will be worth monitoring during the debate.

And then there is Jon Huntsman, who is not participating in the Iowa caucus. A new Suffolk University poll shows some momentum for Huntsman in New Hampshire. Huntsman received 13 percent in the Suffolk poll, trailing front-runners Mitt Romney (38 percent) and Newt Gingrich (20 percent).

Huntsman must finish ahead of Romney in New Hampshire to justify going forward. While his economic plan has been heralded by conservative thinkers as the most pro-growth plan among the candidates’ and his vow to end the economic as well as the trust deficit in the country’s institutions by enacting specific proposals to end the culture of crony capitalism, such as requiring Congressman and those in Cabinet level positions to disclose their incomes for four years after they leave their positions, Huntsman has not caught on nationally even as his numbers steadily tick up in New Hampshire.

While six of the presidential candidates will be speaking to Iowans, Huntsman will be speaking to voters in the Granite State tonight. New Hampshire holds the nation’s “first-in-the-nation” primary on Jan. 10, one week after Iowa’s caucus.