Tonight, at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, all of the major GOP candidates (except Jon Huntsman) will gather for a debate. Since several top-tier candidates skipped the last one, this is considered the informal kickoff to the 2012 race. I'll have a post-debate report later on tonight. In the meantime, here's a tip sheet on what to look for:
Will Romney Look Like a Frontrunner? Polls show Mitt Romney ahead in every early primary and caucus state--Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. He's the clear frontrunner, and seems more on-message than the rest of the field. Will he also stand out in the debate? He'd better, because there's only one direction to go if he doesn't.
Health Care or the Economy? Mitt Romney has wisely made the economy the centerpiece of his campaign. That's mostly what his announcement speech was about, and even if he doesn't always hit the right notes, it's the area he's best suited to run on and the issue of greatest concern to voters. But his fellow candidates won't do him any favors--they'd like to talk about health care, his great weakness. Over the last week, several have attacked Romney, most prominently Tim Pawlenty, who assailed the new health care law as "ObamneyCare." If the debate's focus is health care, Romney loses.
Can Cain Keep it Going? A Fox News focus group deemed Herman Cain the big winner in the last Republican debate, in South Carolina, and many other folks did, too. His performance brought a wave of interest in the Hermanator Experience, and Cain has enjoyed more momentum than anyone else since then. A recent Iowa poll had him tied for second place. But that debate didn't include several of the big names participating tonight. Now that he's drawing more than single digits in the polls, Cain will also draw some attacks. If he stands out again, he'll be an interesting guy to watch.