GOP Candidates to Return to Debate Stage

Republican rivals will face-off in New Hampshire

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It's back to the stage for GOP presidential nominees this weekend, as candidates will participate in two debates ahead of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. The first, and likely most watched, is on Saturday night at 9 p.m. on ABC, followed by another faceoff on Sunday morning at 9 a.m. on NBC.

Many have dubbed this primary so far as "debate-driven," and anticipation for the first rematch since before the holidays is building. Experts say that while there's little doubt that front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will win the New Hampshire primary, given his double-digit lead in polling, there's plenty to watch for this weekend.

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"Voters watch these debates in part for why they watch NASCAR races – they want to see the crashes," says Andrew Smith, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "So if someone says something stupid, that'll be memorable and probably do some real damage to that candidate."

While former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been lashing out at Romney for "dishonest" advertising following his own disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa, Smith says Gingrich needs to refocus his barbs.

"Gingrich has to keep himself relevant and he's not going to do it by going after Mitt Romney,"Smith says. "Gingrich's problem is Rick Santorum. If Santorum finishes second in New Hampshire, Gingrich is done."

Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, rocketed to a narrow second-place finish in the Iowa caucus earlier this week. The social conservative hopes to capitalize on his momentum and launch a credible bid to defeat Romney. When he takes the debate stage, he'll likely get more face time than ever before, thanks to his newfound top-tier status.

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Danny Hayes, a political science professor at American University, says Santorum will likely use that time to speak to a wider audience than just New Hampshire voters.

"He's probably less concerned with how he does in New Hampshire and more concerned with how he'll do in South Carolina," Hayes says, adding that Santorum's conservative positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage will likely play better in the Palmetto State than in New Hampshire. But he'll still need to make an effort in the debates up north.

"Santorum has to give New Hampshire voters some reason to believe he's a good choice," he says.

Both experts agree that Romney is in the catbird seat for now.

"There's Romney and there's everybody else," Hayes says. "What Romney wants to do is remain above the fray. He wants to stay out of as many squabbles as he can. I think Romney will devote a lot of his criticism not to anybody on the stage, but to the guy in the White House: Barack Obama."

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The "X Factor" may end up being Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who's steady and enthusiastic support was good enough for third place in Iowa. His libertarianism plays well with many Northeastern Republicans, particularly in the independent-minded New Hampshire.

Paul's goal in the debates is to keep his base fired up, Smith says.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will likely be a non-factor. Despite earning the endorsement of The Boston Globe, Smith says his bet on New Hampshire did not pay off and the candidate is already pulling back on his direct mail buys.

Hayes says Huntsman will likely continue on the path he took early on, one "unwilling to cater to the views of many of the Republican electorate."

"It will give him the image of a reasonable man standing up there on the stage, but I think it's not helpful for him in winning New Hampshire or the nomination," Hayes says. 

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