2. a. More time for the backbenchers? The tea party is a grassroots movement dedicated to fighting the entrenched norms of U.S. politics. And some of the lower-polling candidates in the 2012 race are tea-party favorites, particularly Herman Cain and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Will CNN devote more questions and screen time to these candidates? Will Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a tea party leader, get as many questions as the two front-runners in the race, Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney?
3. Social Security smackdown. Last Thursday, Perry drew fierce criticism from other candidates after he called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme." Pundits have sliced and diced that comment since, and Social Security is trending as a discussion topic in the GOP race. Entitlement reform fits well within the bounds of this debate's expected fiscal focus, so expect a good chunk of the discussion to be about that program and how to reform it. We can expect Perry to defend his comment, with the other candidates teeing off on him once again. Will debate moderators press them for specific solutions to keep Social Security afloat?
4. Perry vs. the world. Perry shot to the top of national primary polls when he entered the race, and, after his first debate, he's maintained that lead. Perry led at 30 percent in the national CNN poll released today, with Romney at 18 percent as his nearest competitor. The clear front-runner, Perry attracted a lot of sniping last Thursday. Expect the other candidates to keep charging tonight, seeking to bring the Texas governor down.
5. Newt Gingrich vs. the moderators. In the last two debates, the former House speaker has openly feuded with debate moderators. In Iowa, he erupted at the "Mickey Mouse games" of Fox's Chris Wallace, who asked Gingrich about his entire campaign team resigning. In California last week, he bellowed at Politico's John Harris for allegedly attempting to divide the Republican Party by asking whether Perry or Romney had a better argument on health care. Tonight's moderator will be Wolf Blitzer. Will Gingrich pick a fight with the seasoned CNN hand? Probably, if he gets a chance.
6. Spat mashup: Ron Paul vs. Rick Perry vs. Mitt Romney vs. Jon Huntsman. Mini spats are emerging between individual candidates. Huntsman took aim at Romney last Thursday, clearly gunning for the moderate vote. Romney and Perry, the two poll leaders, sparred in the debate's opening minutes, loaded with research ammo about their respective records. Paul has launched an anti-Perry TV ad, and the two feuded last week over who really supported Ronald Reagan. Watch for more side-sniping tonight.
7. Can Bachmann get her groove back? The Minnesota congresswoman enjoyed a summer renaissance, leading Iowa polls and generating a lot of momentum and buzz, but Perry's entrance has drawn attention and support from her campaign. Last week she parted ways with campaign manager Ed Rollins. Bachmann struggled to make her presence felt onstage in California last Thursday, but debating is one of her strong suits. With a charismatic performance tonight, Bachmann could loosen the impression that she's losing altitude.