MANCHESTER, N.H. — Eyes are on Newt Gingrich, whose campaign appears to be on the verge of collapse, as he takes the stage here Monday to debate his GOP rivals and try to revive any hope of continuing in the race for president.
A commanding performance in the debate could help change the narrative that Gingrich’s campaign is essentially dead after last week when the top echelon of his campaign staff resigned out of frustration with the candidate.
A weak performance could solidify the conventional wisdom that his campaign is nearing the end of its short-lived existence.
Jim Dyke, a Republican operative based in South Carolina who has worked on numerous GOP campaigns, said most have put the Gingrich campaign “on life support,” so the discussion around the debate “will continue to be on his chances of recovery and what that means for everyone else.”
But eyes are also fixated on Mitt Romney, the presumptive front-runner for the 2012 Republican nomination, as he takes the debate stage here for the first time of the election cycle.
Observers say Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who seems to be putting his eggs in the New Hampshire basket, may have the most to lose out of all the Republicans debating Monday at Saint Anselm College.
“He’s considered the front runner in New Hampshire and needs to live up to that with a solid performance at the debate,” said Wayne F. Lesperance, Jr., a professor of political science at New England College in New Hampshire.
With Romney making his first debate appearance of the year, the event also gives the rest of the crowded field — including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — a chance at presenting themselves as the anti-Romney candidate.
Pawlenty on Sunday foreshadowed an attack line that is likely to be prevalent in the debate — that Romney oversaw a healthcare law in Massachusetts similar to the one pushed by Democrats and President Barack Obama.
“You can take President Obama’s word for it. President Obama said that he designed ObamaCare after RomneyCare, and basically made it ObamneyCare,” Pawlenty said during an interview on Fox News.
His aides on Sunday, however, downplayed the significance of the remark, saying it doesn’t show that Pawlenty is about to start hitting Romney hard.
Strong words, though, could come from another Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann, who is considering a run but hasn’t announced yet.
“Bachmann and Pawlenty have the most to gain,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican operative and aide to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. “A good performance would bring them stronger fundraising, more attention and growing credibility that they can beat Romney.”
Judson Phillips, who leads the organization Tea Party Nation, said “Bachmann really needs this as a break out.”
“I would really like to see her come out of the box and give Romney the buzz saw treatment,” he said. “Bachmann among all of the Republicans stays on message better than anyone and if she will stay on her message and really go after Romney, I think she could get some really over due traction.”
Others debating include businessman Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Cain, the former CEO of Godfathers Pizza who stirred up buzz for his campaign at a Fox News debate in South Carolina last month, will likely have to answer more questions about his foreign policy views. In an interview outside Sal’s Pizza, where he made an afternoon campaign stop on Sunday to taste pizza and talk about running a business, he dismissed questions about whether someone who has never held office can be commander-in-chief.
“It doesn’t trouble me because of the way I make decisions,” Cain told The Daily Caller.
In preparing for the debate, he has been reading and meeting with his foreign policy advisers, his spokeswoman Ellen Carmichael said.
Lesperance pointed out that Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican who has run for president before, connects with the electorate with his fiscal responsibility message. And he noted how Santorum has spent a substantial amount of time here in the Granite State too.
“He has developed a stump speech and has done the retail politics folks in New Hampshire expect of their candidates,” he said.
The two-hour Republican debate, sponsored by CNN, WMUR-TV and the New Hampshire Union Leader, is set to begin at 8 p.m. Monday.