Tonight's Republican presidential debate on national security and the economy will be former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's first as a top-tier contender, so he will have the most at stake.
Gingrich has been surging in the polls and is now virtually tied with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the lead among Republicans in presidential preference. The latest CNN/ORC poll finds that 24 per cent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they are likely to back Gingrich and 20 per cent favor Romney. Gingrich had only 8 per cent in October.
Gingrich has surged largely because of his impressive performance in the debates so far. He told CNN, which is sponsoring tonight's encounter, "Part of what the debates have done is, [voters have] been able to see me without editing, and, therefore, they've been able to say, 'Gee, that's not the guy I thought he was.'"
His reputation, generated by his many years as a member of the House from Georgia and as House speaker in the 1990's, has been that of an abrasive, combative, hard-charging leader who prided himself on his ideas but who lacked the discipline to be consistent in his message or his policies.
Lately, he has been trying to come across as warmer and more controlled, but it doesn't appear easy for him. Yesterday, at a speech in Goffstown, N.H., his announced goal was to describe his ideas for overhauling Social Security but he veered off message. He ended up talking not only about entitlements but about slashing the size of government, federal re-training programs, tort reform and other unrelated themes.
His critics predict that Gingrich will flash and fade, as other conservative alternatives to Romney have done, including Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, and businessman Herman Cain.
Tonight's debate will give Gingrich an opportunity to continue his momentum, but he could also remind people why so many didn't like him in the first place.
The debate will be held in Washington, D.C. and is sponsored by CNN, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute.
The first event in the GOP nominating process--the Iowa caucuses--are six weeks away.