Romney Faces a Weekend of Challenges

Two debates present his New Hampshire rivals with an opening to attack him.

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The former governor of Massachusetts is again the clear front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. His victory at the Iowa nominating caucuses this week, though extremely narrow (he beat second-place finisher Rick Santorum by only eight votes), gave him momentum just when he needed it most. He is favored to win the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, and has a reasonable chance to win South Carolina later this month because the Republican field is so divided. He has an excellent fund-raising operation and a solid national organization.

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Those are the positives.

But this is also a time of serious peril for Romney.

Expectations for him are so high in New Hampshire that a disappointing finish there could be devastating. While he is holding his own in South Carolina, many conservatives there (and nationally) still doubt his bona fides and many evangelical Christians are uncomfortable with his Mormon faith, which some consider a sect, not a mainstream Christian religion.

His GOP rivals say they will attack him more aggressively than ever, especially Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania who is trying to emerge as Romney's main challenger, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who says Romney waged a dishonest and harsh campaign against him in Iowa.

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All this will play out in two New Hampshire debates this weekend, one sponsored by ABC News Saturday night and the other sponsored by NBC News on Sunday morning.Romney will try to remain calm, steady and confident, which is an image that has served him well so far. His opponents will try to provoke him into a show of pique, vertigo or weakness, which could undermine his position very rapidly.

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