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The first two Republican debates were fairly subdued--though, granted, the first one featured hypotheticals on heroin and prostitution legalization--but Thursday night's debate should be a bit more exciting. It comes just before Saturday's straw poll in Ames, Iowa, where Tim Pawlenty, in particular, has to prove his campaign's not dead.

"Forget about the pledges of civility and the widespread reluctance to engage in explicit personal attacks," Politico's Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman report. "The polite phase of the 2012 campaign is about to come to an end." Summer's almost over, and candidates need to catch voters' attention soon. Likewise, The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake declare, "The next seventy-two hours are by far the most important of the 2012 Republican presidential race, to date." Cillizza and Blake offer a little history lesson from the not-so-distant past:
Don’t believe us? Think back to the days leading up to the June presidential debate in New Hampshire. Pawlenty was regarded as the rapidly emerging second choice to those voters who weren't sold on former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was seen as a fringe candidate with limited appeal outside of her narrow base.
 
Bachmann shined in that debate; Pawlenty stumbled. Now, roughly two months later, Bachmann is still riding that wave of momentum while Pawlenty is fighting for his political life.
"This is that window where the candidates can rise to the occasion or crumble. We'll look back on this in about five months and the field won’t look anything like it does now because some people will have risen to this moment," Republican strategist Alex Castellanos told Politico. One guy who must rise to the moment is Pawlenty, who was criticized for attacking Mitt Romney's health care record in a TV interview but declining to do it to his face at the second debate. 
 
And though Pawlenty's been getting tough on the campaign trail in recent weeks--lots of anti-Obama metaphors involving the word "manure"--his campaign manager told NBC News' Andrew Rafferty "not to expect fireworks." That will be pretty consistent with his RV tour of Iowa, Slate's Dave Weigel reports. At least one local conservative was unimpressed watching Pawlenty talk to voters in Humboldt, telling Weigel: "He doesn't have a lot of zap or enthusiasm. He reminded me of Bob Dole." The voter plans on picking someone else at Ames.
 
NBC News' First Read notes that this is Jon Huntsman's moment to get meaner, too. Huntsman kicked off his campaign by pledging not to sling any mud, but that has gotten him exactly nowhere in the polls. Huntsman recently got a new campaign manager, so maybe he'll take a more aggressive position in his debut debate performance. First Read wonders, "Does he challenge Romney, as you can sense his campaign wants him to do? Or does he find himself on the defensive over his more moderate views? Or is he largely irrelevant tonight?"
 
And just because Bachmann has been riding high lately doesn't mean she'll have it easy Thursday night. Polling averages put her in the lead in Iowa and second place in New Hampshire, which means both reporters and rival candidates will be more ready to attack her than they were in her first debate in June, the Post argues. How she handles herself in the debate could affect performance in Ames, where "anything short of a first-place finish could take some of the bloom off the Bachmann rose."

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