Tonight’s Iowa GOP Presidential Campaign Debate (Fox News Channel, 9pm EDT) pits the top declared candidates against each other at a critical juncture. Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman need some mojo. Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney need to protect and strengthen their “front-runner” status. Here’s a quick preview of where the candidates stand and what they need to do tonight:
Tim Pawlenty‘s campaign has struggled in Iowa, and across the nation. The former Minnesota governor’s fundraising numbers last quarter lagged all of the “top-tier” candidates. Without a win at the debate or a strong top-three finish in the Straw Poll, his campaign may be forced to fold (due to lack of money). Look for Pawlenty to attack Romney on healthcare and Bachmann on experience.
Michele Bachmann jumped into the top tier after June’s New Hampshire debate. If she can reprise that performance tonight, she will be the social conservative candidate to beat in Iowa. She and Pawlenty have been trading jabs in recent weeks — and don’t expect her to continue that in the debate. Look for her to attack President Obama
Jon Huntsman‘s campaign has been flat since its much-publicized launch in June. In order to have any chance of winning the GOP nomination, he must defeat Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. Tonight begins Huntsman’s campaign to take down Romney.
Mitt Romney has been the GOP front-runner since the campaign began. He has raised the most money and is leading in the polls. If you’re the front-runner, you come under attack. Romney will be attacked tonight by Pawlenty and Huntsman. Bachmann has no interest in attacking Romney (yet). Romney will continue to focus his attacks on President Obama.
Ron Paul will bring to Iowa the same libertarian rhetoric he brought in the 2008 campaign. While his is a (very) long-shot bid for the nomination, Paul has a devoted group of supporters that will undoubtedly flock to the straw poll, where he will likely finish in either first or second place. Paul will continue to focus his attacks on The Federal Reserve.
Newt Gingrich will try to resurrect his near-death campaign tonight, though without money and staff, his performance will have to be stellar. He has pledged to stay in the race through the Iowa caucuses.
Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO who captivated audiences in South Carolina debate in May, will try to recapture the magic tonight. But Bachmann outshone him in June, and his poll numbers have dropped sharply since.
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator with deep social conservative credentials, will participate in the debate. With little political support and little money, his campaign has struggled badly.
We’ll be live-blogging the debate tonight. It starts at 8 p.m. CST time, 9 p.m. EDT, and will be broadcast live on Fox News.