What to Watch for in Tonight’s GOP Debate in Iowa

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Joel Page / Reuters

Presidential campaigns have grown over-saturated with debates — there will be five more before Halloween — but some are more important than others. Thursday night’s Republican forum in Iowa feels like a big one. Several candidates have something to prove, and at least one has a lot to lose–even if the most interesting figure of all will be absent. Here are some storylines to follow:

Romney’s  balancing act: It’s been a good summer for Mitt Romney. His May speech defending his Massachusetts health care plan seemed to quiet the conservation about that radioactive element of his record, and he has earned the title of front-runner. He’ll likely try to maintain that aura in this debate by trying to focus on President Obama with the air of a man headed for the general election. His rivals will try to make him squirm over the, er, evolution of his conservative record, including the latest nettlesome revelation about his pitch to Standard & Poor’s as Massachusetts governor. Romeny’s challenge will be to treat those questions seriously, as conservative voters will expect, while also talking whenever possible like a nominee-in-waiting.

T-Paw v. “Bobblehead”: On the eve of Saturday’s Ames straw poll, the most  interesting storyline in Iowa right now is the duel between Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann. Pawlenty’s best hope for salvaging his campaign is to demonstrate that he can, in fact, win Iowa. But the Minnesota Congresswoman has almost totally eclipsed Pawlenty there. In the last GOP debate, everyone watched to see how hard Pawlenty would go after Mitt Rommey (and were left puzzled when he declined to). Pawlenty won’t have the luxury of focusing on the front-runner in this debate. He’ll need to press his case that Bachmann is a talking “bobblehead” with no substantive record to match his long experience as a governor. Watch to see how hard Bachmann fires back: It will indicate how vulnerable she feels to this line of attack, and whether she’s worried Pawlenty might stage an upset at Ames that could leave her resembling a Donald Trump-like flash in the pan.

The back of the pack: Can Rick Santorum, Herman Cain or Ron Paul deliver a memorable performance, or even just a winning one-liner, that makes the TV and online recaps and sticks in the minds of GOP activists? A fundraising surge could greet anyone who does. Santorum in particular is nearly out of time to show that he’s a plausible candidate. The same may go for Jon Huntsman (unless you buy the theory that he’s in it for 2016 anyway). And whither Newt Gingrich? His campaign lately has had the whiff of a marketing exercise. But Newt’s great strength is his rhetorical skill and knack for a pungent soundbite. Don’t be shocked if he out-talks everyone onstage and comes away with some new wind in his sails.

The specter of Rick Perry: Perry won’t attend Thursday’s debate. But the Texas Governor will cast a shadow over the entire affair. The Fox News questioners are likely to goad the other candidates into taking shots at him. It’d be surprising to see anyone take the bait–unless someone sees an advantage in forcing Perry to enter the race on the defensive. If so, Perry will have his chance to respond directly at the next GOP debate on Sept. 7.