Granite State rumble shapes up as GOP hopefuls debate in Manchester, NH

MERRIMACK, N.H. — With just four days to go until the New Hampshire primary, the six remaining GOP candidates will face off Saturday night in a debate in Manchester. A second debate, in nearby Concord, will follow Sunday morning.

The pressure is on for anyone looking to challenge former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is coming off a razor-thin victory in Iowa and holds a 20-point lead in the latest New Hampshire polls.

Romney’s lead in the Granite State may seem insurmountable, but with South Carolina’s primary just a week after New Hampshire’s everyone is watching, and candidates could use the opportunity to make a play for voters in that critical southern state. The Daily Caller asked observers on the ground in New Hampshire about what’s at stake tonight for the GOP hopefuls.

Mitt Romney

As the frontrunner, Romney’s job is simply to keep it together, deliver a solid debate performance, and not commit any memorable unforced errors.

In a state that is obviously “fertile ground” for Romney, “he needs to come out of this as unscathed as possible,” said Republican consultant Mike DeVanney.

“If you are in the lead, don’t lose what you have and somehow let those undecided voters or those supporting candidates come to the realization that you are unacceptable,” went the advice emailed to TheDC by Chuck Warren, a Republican political consultant.

Former New Hampshire Republican Party chrairman Fergus Cullen said the front-runner’s rivals are likely to “make their bones by going after Romney, not because they’re trying to defeat Romney, because I think that’s impossible,” but because “they are competing for the non-Romney voter,” and the best way to fill that slot is to make the contrast as clear as possible.

How Romney handles the pressure — whether he gets testy, as he has done at times in the past when criticized, or simply laughs it off, as he has in previous  debates — will reveal something about about his capacity for self-control in a crisis.

“Romney needs merely to ride it out and not lose his cool,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the New Hampshire based think tank the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. “He’ll be repeating in his head all night ‘stay on message.’

And lose his cool he might, since he’s likely to be the subject of attacks from all sides.

Warren predicted that Romney “will feel like a piñata at an 8-year old’s birthday party.”

To really hurt himself, Romney would have to do a lot of damage, for instance, in “some spectacular Rick Perry-style moment,” in the words of Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman and a Romney supporter, who called such an eventuality “unlikely.”

But the debate could still be fraught with peril for Romney, as voters who have never warmed to him continue to search for an alternative. “For the debate to matter, something about the exchange has to go to deeper, perhaps to unarticulated issues or uneasiness about the frontrunner,” emailed Larry Sabatom, the  director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics . “Will this happen tonight? I have no idea, which is why I’ll watch.”