Comity or collision? That's the question that the Republican presidential candidates face as they prepare for their debate in Iowa tomorrow night.
Most of the attention this time will be on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has risen to the top of the polls among GOP voters and who is under increasing fire from his adversaries now that he is the front runner.
Gingrich has done well in the debates so far, but he has largely escaped close scrutiny. Few considered him a serious contender as a series of other candidates, including Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and businessman Herman Cain, flashed and faded. Meanwhile, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts maintained a small but steady lead in the polls and was generally regarded as the man to beat for the GOP nomination.
But Romney hasn't been able to move beyond about 25 per cent support among GOP voters, and Gingrich is now presenting a real challenge to him. As a result, Romney is abandoning his above-the-fray attitude and he and his surrogates have been attacking Gingrich with rising intensity.
The latest Fox News poll gives Gingrich 36 per cent among Republican voters nationwide, up from 23 per cent a month ago. Romney is at 23 per cent, up slightly from 22 per cent a month ago. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has 12 per cent, up from 8. The other candidates are far behind.
Romney's supporters are now criticizing Gingrich as erratic, mercurial, and inconsistent on the issues. Former Gov. John Sununu of New Hampshire blasted Gingrich yesterday for criticizing a conservative budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that has become an article of faith among many on the right.
Romney has begun sounding the alarm that Gingrich is a Washington insider who has spent four decades inside the Beltway while Romney was working as a businessman creating jobs.
But Romney could appear harsh and desperate if he attacks Gingrich too strongly in the debate, especially because this approach would undermine his reputation as a decent man with an affable disposition. So the former governor may choose comity during the encounter.
It would seem more natural for other candidates to collide with Gingrich tomorrow night. Ron Paul, a libertarian known for his bluntness and commitment to conservative principles, seems likely to do most of the heavy lifting in attacking Gingrich. Paul, in fact, says he feels obliged to expose Gingrich as a "counterfeit conservative." To that end, the Texas congressman is currently running an ad in Iowa, where the first nominating caucus will be held January 3, attacking the former House speaker as a hypocrite.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has also gained the reputation as a tough critic of her opponents. Iowa is a particularly big test for her since she is counting on voters there to give her a big boost, so she has a lot to gain by damaging Gingrich.
And former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is also relying on Iowa votes to give him a badly needed lift, so he will be tempted to attack Gingrich in an effort to emerge as Romney's main opponent.