Photo: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara
The third Republican Presidential debate since labour Day — and arguably the most important one yet — takes place in Florida tonight, and will it determine once and for all which candidates can compete with the top-tier on the national stage.Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are the front-runners in this race, but the large field of candidates trailing may determine which finishes first, or even mount an insurgent campaign for the nomination.
Here’s what’s at stake for Republicans tonight:
- Jon Huntsman: He’s made some progress in New Hampshire polls, but can he truly break into this race? His debate performance at the Reagan library earlier this month was well regarded, but he faltered last week. Huntsman’s (exceedingly) long-shot campaign depends on him looking the more electable candidate, while landing big blows on Perry and Romney over controversial statements in their pasts. If he can’t regain his momentum tonight, he likely never will.
- Michele Bachmann: Bachmann’s campaign has undergone a slow collapse since her victory at the Iowa Straw Poll in August. After highly-embarrassing gaffes on the HPV vaccine, Bachmann needs to right the ship tonight. She can’t win the nomination, but she can steal votes from Perry.
- Ron Paul: As always, Paul has a significant and loyal base, but he has shown little ability to find an audience beyond that. His comments on the September 11th attacks last week were particularly objectionable to GOP voters, and if he ever did pick up momentum, would come back to haunt him. Tonight, he will continue his attacks on Perry, which indirectly helps the rest of the field.
- Mitt Romney: The New Hampshire front-runner is buoyed by some big endorsement pick-ups in the past few days. He is preparing to hammer Perry on Social Security — an area they have sparred over in the past two debates. Romney will try to make Perry look extreme, but expect him to take some blows tonight as he begins to steal some of Perry’s time in the spotlight.
- Newt Gingrich: The former Speaker of the House remains a non-factor in debates, despite his carefully-reasoned answers. Gingrich has tried to refocus he debate on Obama — as if he’s a representative for the GOP, not a candidate. Don’t expect that to change.
- Gary Johnson: This is his first debate since May, and the libertarian has almost no national name recognition. He’ll get some airtime, but his presence will likely make Perry and Romney look more like front-runners, and the rest of the field like fringe candidates.
- Rick Santorum: He has overshadowed Michele Bachmann in the past two debates as the defender of social conservatism. If he does that again, his will be a major endorsement going into next year.
- Herman Cain: The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has been unable to adapt to a national campaign, with awkward TV appearances and gaffes. He refused to name his economic advisers the other day. He won’t be a major factor.
- Rick Perry: The overall front-runner leads in Iowa and national polls, but Romney has gained on him in recent days. He’s been overshadowed by Romney — and even the lesser candidates — in the first two debates. He needs to reverse that trend tonight, before the unelectability doubts take root.
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