Holding a slim one point lead in the RealClearPolitics average of Florida polls, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will head into tonight’s crucial CNN debate against an opponent — Newt Gingrich — who has used these debate formats on multiple occasions to revive his campaign. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul will be there too, but the focus will be on the two undisputed front-runners in Florida, which holds its primary on Tuesday, Jan. 31. This is the last debate before then and may be the most important debate of this cycle.
Here are six things to look for tonight.
1. Crowd noise
Before Monday’s debate started, moderator Brian Williams told the audience to refrain from applauding. Amazingly, the audience listened. Gingrich has been at his best when he has attacked the media to rousing ovations at the debates. On Monday, the subdued audience seemed to throw him off of his game, and Gingrich later expressed his frustration.
CNN will allow the audience to applaud, so it will be interesting to see if Gingrich can again have a captivating debate performance to give his campaign another jolt in Florida.
2. Hispanic issues
The mainstream media will certainly ask the candidates about immigration and the DREAM Act — the debate is in Florida, after all — issues that are important to Hispanics. But when the mainstream media asks Republicans questions about these issues, their tone is often hostile and the questions seemed designed and biased to make Republicans look bad to Hispanics, which helps Obama in the general election. Romney and Gingrich both have tendencies to pander, and they must refrain from doing so for it could potentially cost them down the line in other primary states that do not have as many Republicans of Hispanic descent as Florida does. On the other hand, the candidates must also be careful to not say something that could potentially anger Hispanics in a general election. It’s a fine line the candidates must always walk, and they will have to tonight because these issues will be discussed.
3. Will Romney act like a front-runner again?
The most recent batch of polls from CNN, American Research Group and Insider Advantage, have Romney in the lead again in Florida. This is in addition to the thumb on the scale Romney has going into election day from early voting and absentee ballots that have been cast in his favor. Will we see the Romney of the fall debate season when he acted like the front-runner above the fray and spent the bulk of the debates deflecting attacks that came his way?
Or will Romney, to not take any chances, try to take out Gingrich with attacks that he has rolled out this past week, such as Gingrich’s ties to Freddie Mac (Romney scored many points on Monday with this line of attack on Gingrich).
How Romney navigates this debate will tell us a lot about how his campaign feels about Florida.
4. Will Gingrich revert back to the punchy underdog?
Similarly, will Gingrich act like the scrappy, brawling underdog that allowed him to save his campaign twice already in a volatile election season? Will he again condemn the media and the moderators? Will he call out Romney for having invested in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or for running away from the Reagan legacy?
5. Santorum and Paul
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul may not even be in Florida on election night, but it is in both of their interests to gang up on Gingrich. Paul wants to eliminate Santorum and Gingrich and get a one on one fight with Romney. Similarly, Santorum is hoping to emerge from the anti-Romney wing of the 2012 election cycle as the sole challenger to Romney. Will they team up to try and hurt Gingrich and not attack Romney as much?
6. Fast and the Furious and Solyndra
During most of the Republican debates, Obama has gone unscathed and, therefore, come out a winner. Will the candidates be asked about Fast and the Furious and Solyndra? Obama is vulnerable on these issues, but the mainstream media continues to shield him from what would be blistering attacks on these issues.