5 Things to Watch for in Tonight's GOP Debate

GOP Contenders Set To Trade Jabs in Ames, Iowa.

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GOP presidential hopefuls will gather tonight in Ames, Iowa for a debate ahead of Saturday's straw poll. Here are five things that the political pros will be watching for:

1. Will Mitt Romney become a punching bag for his rivals, and how will he react? Romney, the fragile front runner in the polls, emerged unscathed from the last debate in New Hampshire in June. His opponents barely criticized him as they focused on attacking President Obama. This time will probably be different. All the candidates will take their turns attacking President Obama, of course, but it's likely that lots of zingers also will be directed against Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.  "Romney has been keeping a low profile," says a prominent GOP strategist who is currently neutral in the Republican race. "He is allowing other candidates to compete with each other and in some cases self destruct." But now many GOP strategists believe that Romney needs to be more aggressive in stating his case, defending himself and defining his agenda. If he starts that process in a clear way tonight, he will probably be considered the winner of the debate and this will help cement his position as front runner. [Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.]

The political pros also wonder whether Romney will keep his cool as his adversaries raise questions about his inconsistency on issues ranging from health care to abortion, his record as governor of Massachusetts and his background as a businessman.

2. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman will be participating in his first presidential debate. He entered the race with high hopes but has gone nowhere. A former ambassador to China under President Obama, he faces skepticism from conservatives because he was part of an administration that many on the right loathe. He will try to position himself as a Washington outsider who isn't part of the bitter, partisan culture of the capital and who can get things done.

3. Will Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann maintain her momentum? She is considered the most exciting candidate in the race and is popular among Tea Party activists and social conservatives who tend to dominate the Iowa caucuses, which will start the process of selecting delegates next January or February. She will likely come under fire from her rivals and from journalists who will ask questions about a lack of legislation passed in Congress and for being mistake-prone. [See a slide show of who's in and out for the GOP in 2012.]

4. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty might have the biggest challenge of all. He has invested lots of time and staff in Iowa but has gotten much less traction than he expected. He was widely criticized for not confronting Romney in the June debate, and is likely to get more aggressive tonight in an effort to excite his followers and show that he has a fighting spirit that his critics have said he lacks.

5. Ron Paul, the longtime U.S. representative from Texas, ran for president in 2008 and emerged as a libertarian icon. He could do very well in Iowa because the GOP straw poll this Saturday and the nominating caucuses put a premium on turning out cadres of committed voters, which Paul has. He will argue that he was right all along in his calls for cutting the federal deficit, and that it's time for America to embrace his solutions.

Others scheduled to participate in tonight's debate are businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.  [See political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

One big question won't be answered: How does Texas Governor Rick Perry handle himself on the national stage? Perry, considered a likely candidate, hasn't formally entered the race and won't be at tonight's debate. Less clear is where Sarah Palin will be. The Iowa GOP plans to announce later today that a "special guest" will be at the debate amid reports that Palin's suspended bus tour is on the road again, destination Iowa.

On Saturday, Iowa Republicans will hold their quadrennial straw poll of presidential preferences. It won't result in the selection of any delegates to the Republican National Convention, but it will allow the candidates to show organizational strength and could give one or two of the hopefuls a boost. It could also damage candidates if their showing is poor.

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