Republican presidential contenders face off tonight in the final debate before the first votes are cast in the GOP presidential primary, giving them one last chance to make their case before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus. With the race even more up in the air than ever, experts say expect the sparks to fly and voter support to remain fluid until caucus night.
The keys to tonight are avoiding momentum-slowing mistakes and focusing on the local audience, they say.
"They could not make mistakes, I suppose that might be the biggest game change, but I also think showing some tipping of the hat that they are aware of Iowans, instead of playing to a national audience which basically all of the previous debates have done, can have an impact," says Caroline Tolbert, an American politics professor at the University of Iowa. She adds, "twenty days out, I think it's a really fluid race."
Tolbert says her university's polling, released earlier this week, shows soft support for top candidates and that the final chapter on the caucus results will definitely include some surprises.
"Someone is going to do better than expected and someone's going to do worse than expected," she says. "I'd bet my money that Newt Gingrich is going to do worse than expected and I bet my money somebody – and I don't know who yet – will do better than expected. And I'm expecting Mitt Romney to hold."
Observers note that current frontrunner former House Speaker Gingrich is getting pounded in television advertising in Iowa and will likely continue to lose support, as some more recent polls have shown. That leaves open an opportunity for candidates who have actually been pounding the Hawkeye pavement to gain ground among caucus-goers.
James McCormick, political science department chair at Iowa State University and director of the school's political poll, says the frontrunners will feel the heat from the back of the pack tonight. He says lower polling candidates, such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, will seek to burnish their social conservative credentials while at the same time targeting the race frontrunners, Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"You're probably going to see tonight, on some of the social issues they'll be a reinforcement of some of those positions because that's where Santorum and Bachmann and Perry can splice up the Republican constituents or the independents as well," says McCormick. "Those are the three that are really going to try to break through."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, widely cited for building the best ground game in the state, will likely continue to stick to his libertarian themes and Romney will simply try to avoid making an error, McCormick says.
And the thrice married Gingrich will likely be forced to once again acknowledge his past of unfaithfulness, but can blunt the impact by owning up to his sins, he says.
"I think his mantra will be that he's 68 years old and he's gone through these things and he's changed his life," McCormick says. "I don't know that that will be reassuring but certainly for some social conservatives and for many people, they believe in sort of second chances and redemption and that sort of thing here."
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