Debate Prep: And Then There Were Five

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As the Romney freight train rumbles onward, the newly winnowed Republican field meets in South Carolina for debate No. 16.

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The last time the Republican presidential primary candidates debated, a little over a week ago, Jon Huntsman was onstage and Mitt Romney was accused of "pious baloney." With Huntsman now departed from the field, the five remaining candidates will face off tonight in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (where they're being welcomed by the majestic sand sculpture above): Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Rick Perry. The debate, sponsored by Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the South Carolina Republican Party, begins at 9 p.m.  (There's one more debate, on Thursday in Charleston, before Saturday's primary.) Here are some of the dynamics we'll be watching for:

The undercard's dilemma. As the two most plausible remaining alternatives to Romney, Gingrich and Santorum face a choice: Do they focus on attacking the front-runner or attacking each other? On the one hand, making a forceful case against Romney would go a long way toward convincing conservative voters they have what it takes. In the New Hampshire debates a week ago, Gingrich and Santorum made an effective anti-Romney tag-team, each boosting the other's argument against Romney's electability pitch. On the other hand, they'll continue to split the anti-Romney vote if one can't elbow the other out of the slot. 

Positioning on Bain. Gingrich and Perry have both done an uncomfortable dance around the newly raised issue of Romney's business record, each first scorching his private-equity work only to back off in the face of criticism from the right. Gingrich originally voiced agreement with the anti-Bain ads being aired by a super PAC supporting him, but now is calling for the ads to be taken down. Perry, too, has stopped hammering the theme of "vulture capitalism" since it prompted an influential South Carolina Republican to abandon his campaign. Assuming the debate moderators bring it up, the candidates -- including Romney -- will have to figure out how to position themselves on this fascinating debate about the morals of the free market.

Romney's fine line. With his nomination looking increasingly like a foregone conclusion, the front-runner's task is trickier than ever. He must fill the role of a nominee-in-waiting without seeming like he's taking that for granted. He must demonstrate his opponents' unworthiness without seeming to brush them off. Romney is a skilled debater whose mouth sometimes runs ahead of his brain, as when, in New Hampshire, he pattered on implausibly about his life outside of politics -- it's simply not believable, as he claimed, that he never actually intended to beat Sen. Edward Kennedy when he ran against him in 1994, and his quip that no one should have to win an election to pay a mortgage was easily twisted to imply that he thought only rich people should run for office. As the almost-presumptive-nominee, Romney has to be more careful than ever, while also, if it's possible, growing in stature.

Whose side is Paul on? When Romney was being attacked for his political ambitions during the last debate, Paul jumped in to defend him. A couple of days later, Paul also defended Romney and criticized his critics over the Bain issue. There's a political calculus behind this: Paul's advisers have repeatedly said they don't believe Paul and Romney are "fishing in the same pond" when it comes to voters. But it's ironic that Paul, who probably stands the best chance of staying in the race to battle Romney through the primaries, has been so uncritical of the front-runner of late. How far will he take it?

Does Perry go kamikaze? The Texas governor has nothing to lose at this point. His prospects are basically zero. Yet his past few debate performances have been excellent, giving a glimpse of the candidate he could have been, had he not been so disastrously off his game when it counted. Left for dead as he plays out the string, does he make one last-ditch attempt to bring down Romney? Or does he keep it dignified in an attempt to save face?

Grappling with race. The Republican candidates have rarely been called upon to face racial issues as they court the overwhelmingly white primary electorate. With this debate taking place in the South on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, they could be asked to confront racially charged issues, such as new voter ID laws, that play a bit differently in a general election than they do in a Republican primary.

Image credit: Reuters/Randall Hill
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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