It's Early, but There Are Real Stakes in the First GOP New Hampshire Debate

As candidates gather to debate in New Hampshire, spotlight will be on front-runner Romney.

By + More

When New Englanders settle in front of their televisions tonight, the high-stakes showdown they're most likely to tune in to will be Game 6 of the Boston Bruins versus the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals rather than the first New Hampshire debate of the GOP primary season. But even if the audience for the forum, which comes months before the first in the nation primary, will be small, the stakes won't necessarily be.

The debate, hosted by the New Hampshire Union Leader, WMUR-TV in New Hampshire, and CNN, is also the first time that the two of the biggest names so far in the race — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — will be able to square off. Also making his first debate appearance will be former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign is on life support after most of his campaign staff quit last week to protest strategic differences with the candidate. Also appearing in the debate will be Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain. The debate is the first in the crucial state of New Hampshire, which will host the first presidential primary next year. [See a slide show of GOP 2012 contenders.]

For average voters, from New Hampshire or elsewhere, the debate is important, but likely not critical. Although political junkies have been eagerly awaiting the start of the primary season, it's still pretty early for rank-and-file voters. Most people are waiting for the field to solidify before picking sides. But the debate will have a trickle-down effect on voters, by setting in early impressions for committed activists and mid-level politicos who could ultimately prove crucial to a primary victory. It's also a chance to tie down the big-dollar donors who have yet to pick a side in the upcoming race. "I think that money is going to start moving sooner, rather than later," said University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is banking on a strong win in New Hampshire's primary to boost his campaign to victory across the nation. For aspiring presidential candidates from New England, the New Hampshire primary is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, a familiarity with the state gives those candidates an enviable advantage in the crucial primary. But that sets high expectations for the candidate to meet. A loss in New Hampshire would likely be fatal to Romney's chances, and even a victory could be underwhelming. In 1992, for instance, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary, but his slim margin of victory allowed Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton to declare himself the "Comeback Kid" despite a second place showing. [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]

After his failed 2008 presidential campaign, Romney is familiar to New Hampshire voters, as well as the influential donors and advocacy groups he'll need to win the nomination. But he's still in a precarious position, as the front-runner in the race with relatively soft support among Republicans, with some polls showing him behind possible challenger Sarah Palin. Romney also faces conservative criticism of his record in Massachusetts, including his support of a healthcare plan similar to the one President Obama signed into law last year. For Romney, tonight's debate will be about consolidating his position as the party favorite, and defending himself from any attacks that may come.

Pawlenty is aiming to be a mainstream alternative for Republican voters unhappy with Romney. But that doesn't necessarily mean he'll come to the debate with guns blazing. "It's early, and a lot of these candidates are still thinking about building name recognition," Scala says. "In a multi-candidate primary, there's a lot of hesitancy in going negative early." The other candidates in the primary are seen as long shots, but they'll have a chance to strike it big in early debates, as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did in early 2008 debates.