What To Look For In Tonight’s GOP Debate

GOP presidential hopefuls take their debates to New Hampshire.

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The Republican presidential candidates resume their debates tonight in New Hampshire, and each contender will have something important to prove. All in all, it could be a rough-and-tumble affair. Here’s what to look for:

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and the front runner in many polls, is expected to face criticism of his flip-flopping on issues, ranging from abortion to gay rights, and for his controversial health-care overhaul in his home state. Romney has been trying to base his campaign on his expertise as a businessman who rescued shaky companies and knows how to create jobs. But his rivals will try to throw him off message and divert his attention to social issues, where many Republicans don't think he has been consistently conservative. The debate moderators are also likely to quiz him about his Mormon faith, which was criticized as a "cult" by an evangelical leader over the weekend.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been hammered by other candidates for his views on illegal immigration because he signed a bill granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants at public colleges and universities in Texas. He also has been criticized for claiming that Texas has been a powerful job creator under his leadership, while his rivals say the state actually benefited from government and military hiring and the private-sector employment that was generated tended to be low-wage jobs. A bright spot for Perry was his announcement last week that his campaign raised $17 million in the latest quarter, tops among all the candidates for that time period. A big question: Can he improve his weak debate performances up to now?

Businessman Herman Cain won a Florida straw poll last month and surged in the polls to the top tier where he has joined Romney and Perry. Last week, he came in second at a "values voters" conference in Washington. Cain is a powerful public speaker, but he lacks experience in public office and has a skeleton organization around the country, is lagging in fund-raising, and has yet to show that he has staying power. These issues are likely to come up in the debate.

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota's star has dimmed since she won an Iowa straw poll several weeks ago. She has made some intemperate and controversial remarks since then, and has dropped in the polls. She can be a skilled debater, however, and will attempt to show that she is a serious first-tier candidate. Bachmann will also try to appeal to supporters in the Tea Party who have switched to Perry or Cain.

[View photos of Michele Bachmann.]

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas could get another boost from the debate because his libertarian views, such as his criticism of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, differ so starkly from those of the other candidates. This makes his bold positions stand out. His goal will be to widen his appeal beyond hard-core libertarians. He won the straw poll at the "values voters" conference in Washington last weekend.

Other candidates, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, will try to break from the pack and elbow their way into the top tier.

Tonight's debate is sponsored by the Washington Post and Bloomberg News.

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