Here’s what to watch for.
When Republican presidential candidates gathered in South Carolina several weeks ago for the party’s first primary debate, the people viewed most likely to capture the GOP nomination chose to stay home. The only real news to come out of the rather dull night was that former Godfather Pizza CEO and relative unknown, Herman Cain, was declared the winner.
The debate scheduled to take place at 8 p.m. at St. Anslem’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire, will be an entirely different kind of affair and viewers who tune in to CNN can expect a good fight.
First, it will feature former Massachusetts governor and perceived frontrunner Mitt Romney, who, as he’s demonstrated in his latest campaign video, considers the rest of the field bumps in the road on his way to challenge President Obama in next year’s general election. The one thing the other candidates on stage will have in common is the desire to go after Romney as hard as they can.
The debate will include former Minnesota Gov. Tim Palwenty; Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann; Texas Rep. Ron Paul; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; and, of course, Cain.
“One thing I’ll be looking for is how much they’re going to beat up on Romney. I expect that he’ll be their main focus, particularly for Pawlenty and Gingrich,” says San Francisco State political scientist Robert Smith. “They’ll want to bring down the front runner a little bit and will attack him as a flip-flopper and on his health care plan.”
Smith says he’ll also be curious to see how far to the right all of the candidates will go to establish themselves as the night’s Tea Party favorite. He believes this will give the field another opportunity to dig at Romney, whom they’ll try to cast as a “closet moderate” as they attempt to establish their far-right credentials. And it may produce some of the night’s best sound bites.
“If they’re all bunched up to the right, they’ll be tempted to say something outlandish to distinguish themselves from the others,” Smith says.
Bachmann, already an established Tea Party sweetheart, has not yet formally declared her candidacy but is expected to do so soon. Her challenge Monday night will be to show that she’s a truly credible candidate—not Palin 2.0. Smith believes that Romney and Pawlenty are so far the only two who have a chance of facing off with Obama next year. But if Bachmann performs well in New Hampshire and other early primary states, she could have some influence on who the party’s nominee will be, even if it is not herself.
Cain has been making gains in the polls, but has little to no chance of going very far in the nominating race.
“He can say things that might pull them further to the right than they might want to go. He brings color” in more ways than one, Smith laughs.
(Photo: Steve Pope/Getty Images)