Will Mitt Romney play the role of dignified front-runner? Will Jon Huntsman remind voters he’s running for president?
It’s debate time again, and eight GOP presidential candidates will take the stage Thursday night at Iowa State University ahead of this weekend’s Ames Straw Poll.
Those participating in the Fox News-sponsored debate include Romney, Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
Here’s a Daily Caller rundown of five developments to watch for:
1. Jon Huntsman makes his first debate appearance:
“It’s time for Huntsman to shine,” Ford O’Connell told The Daily Caller. O’Connell is a Republican consultant and chairs the Civic Forum PAC. “He’s already getting some doubts about his campaign, and there’s obviously been some internal strife. It’s sort of a chance for him to introduce himself on a national stage.”
Huntsman “could gain momentum or he could fall flat on his face,” O’Connell said of the former Utah governor and ambassador to China.
In a recent interview with TheDC, Huntsman said he will not hesitate to make distinctions between himself and the other candidates, although he said he would do it politely.
“Civility in a political debate can coexist with the facts,” he told TheDC. “And we look forward to that.”
“We’re going to be who we are,” he added.
2. Will the pack attack Romney?
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, clearly enjoying his front-runner status, went unscathed after the CNN debate in New Hampshire. Will that change this time around?
Stories coming out of that debate in June said Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, missed his best chance to criticize Romney and establish himself as the leading Romney alternative.
3. The Rick Perry factor
Perry, the current Texas governor, won’t be in Iowa for the debate or for the Ames Straw Poll. But he’s expected to announce soon that he’s officially getting in the race — perhaps as early as Saturday.
“He’ll certainly be on everybody’s minds,” said O’Connell. “Perry not being there and Romney not actively pursing the straw poll sort of diminishes the overall importance of the debate.”
4. Momentum heading into the straw poll
Minnesotans Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann both need strong straw poll performances. Debate missteps could easily sideline their best-laid plans.
“This is where we’ll see the candidates attempt to stand out strongly during the debate,” said Kelly Eustis, a Republican operative who has worked with the Tea Party Express and who now leads One Nation PAC, “so that they can pull off a straw poll win on Saturday.”
“Pawlenty, I think, has the most at stake because he’s put the most in,” columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News this week.
“He has been in there for a year, he’s had about — I think — at least 40 events. And if he doesn’t do well in the straw poll and/or the debates, I think he’s done.”
5. Will “second-tier” candidates have a chance to shine?
This especially goes for Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, none of whom have high expectations going into the debate.
“A strong performance can help them translate into better than expected showing in the straw poll,” O’Connell said.