What to Watch for as You Watch the GOP Debate

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It's the first debate without Herman Cain and with New Gingrich surging in polls. Who will be the first to attack?

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As you watch the ABC News-Yahoo!-Iowa Republican Party-Des Moines Register debate tonight, here are some dynamics to keep an eye on:

Newtmentum: Can It Be Stopped? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has shot to the top of every national and state poll that matters, save for in New Hampshire, where he's pulled to within 10 percentage points of Mitt Romney in the latest the NBC News/Marist poll. His rise has been sudden -- and partially dependent on the collapse of Herman Cain's campaign -- and whether or not it has been or will yet be accompanied by a campaign mechanism that can really take advantage of the polling surge, it has made something that's been plain about alternative front-runner Mitt Romney for some time that much more urgently apparent.

There is something about Romney -- whether it is his historic stances, his Mormon faith, or his straight-laced persona -- that just does not give Republican primary voters a fire in the belly for him. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty had the same problem. It was obvious from the start and in the end it cost Pawlenty, because looking good on paper is just not enough to win a political contest in the absence of a certain kind of mysterious chemistry between candidate and electorate.

Gingrich's positions, and personal and professional history, would seem by every rational accounting to be likely to give today's Republican primary voters pause, yet they appear to be flocking to him based on his solid debate performances and intangible personal characteristics, combined with whatever it is about Romney that has failed to catch their fancy, or repelled them.

With Cain out of the race -- and out of the debates for the first time all fall -- Huntsman sidelined (and not even eligible to attend this debate, so thin is his support), Rick Perry continuing to make embarrassing flubs, Michele Bachmann a non-factor other than through her occasional very well-thought-through attacks, Rick Santorum failing to catch on despite his shoe-leather efforts and Paul a factor in the first two states to cast ballots only -- Gingrich will continue to ride high unless an argument can be made against him personally that undermines his appeal as a human being, and not just as a policymaker.

Newt vs. Romney. Romney and Gingrich will stand side-by-side at the debate, a format that makes highly personal attacks more difficult, or at the very least more awkward. But the path that Romney seemed to lay out in his meeting the with Des Moines Register editorial board on Friday -- in which he raised and dismissed Gingrich's moon colony proposal and his ideas about space mirrors -- suggests that the former Massachusetts governor gets that he's going to need to fight Gingrich on personality ground as much as anywhere else. After all, Romney has agreed with enough of Gingrich's policy proposals -- such as the health-care mandate idea Romney said earlier in the cycle he snagged from Gingrich -- that the policy fights will be the harder ones, even if they do wind up tussling over who supports Paul Ryan's plan to radically alter Medicare more and the like.

Instead of just going after the GOP leader who retook the House and has been building Republican Party ties around the country for the more than a decade since he left office, Romney can also fight against the guy who kept a snake in his bathtub (an American archetype, and frequently encountered in high school at the very least), is thrice-married (and to a hair-debate-inspiring, Tiffany's diamond-wearing French horn player who was his mistress, no less), and obsessed with zoos, moon colonies, space mirrors and putting your kids to work cleaning toilets.

It will be interesting to see which Gingrich Romney addresses himself to.

Snippy Mitt. It will also be interesting to see which Romney shows up. While he demonstrated all fall that he is an excellent debater, in recent weeks, Romney has also appeared peevish and snippy at times. It's the time of the contest when everyone is a bit tired -- and about to get even more so -- but it's the first real chink in Romney's armor to become apparent. If Snippy Mitt shows up, as he did in a late November interview with Brett Baier on Fox News -- he will draw the attention experienced candidate Mitt would like to see focused on someone else's foibles.

Ron Paul, True Believer. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has already made it very clear in a biting advertisement calling Gingrich a "serial hypocrite" that he has no patience for Gingrich's many positions or emergence as a Washington macher. Paul also has a much better ground game in Iowa than he did last cycle or than most of the other candidates, and he has never pulled a punch. The Gingrich-Paul dynamic will be worth keeping an eye on. He could turn out to be Gingrich's fiercest critic.

Image credit: CHRIS KEANE / Reuters

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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