Wednesday night's debate could have big consequences for the ongoing battle between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich.
The Republican candidates meet for their 20th debate Wednesday night, and while it's tempting to dismiss all the hype -- hasn't every debate been preceded by a melodramatic whiz-bang montage of pugilistic metaphors and oversold theatrics? -- this one really does stand to be a turning point. The GOP primary race is at a crossroads: Either Mitt Romney makes a comeback in Tuesday's Michigan and Arizona primaries and recovers his claim to front-runner status, or else he continues to swoon, consigning the contest to a state of swirling disarray that could continue all the way to the convention in Tampa.
Wednesday's face-off, sponsored by CNN and the Arizona GOP, could well be the last time the four remaining candidates -- Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul -- meet on the debate stage. An additional pre-Super Tuesday debate scheduled for March 1 in Georgia was cancelled last week after most of the candidates declined to participate. A March 19 debate in Oregon remains on the calendar, but its prospects must now be considered questionable.
If that fact alone isn't enough to make you tune in, here are a few crucial questions this debate could answer:
* Santorum can dish it out, but can he take it? So far in the race, Santorum has been lucky. His moments of glory in the GOP race -- his Iowa surge and his current bubble -- have been timed such that he hasn't been in the middle of the debate stage with a target on his back. If debates were scored on rhetorical points, he'd probably be judged the best of the current and former 2012 candidates: He's quick on his feet and brutally persistent when going after an opponent's logic. But debates are also about likability and emotional resonance, and Santorum has a tendency to get prickly and aggrieved when he defends himself. He's likely to face questions about the more awkward social-conservative flash points that have come to light in recent days -- from his recently rediscovered 2008 comments about the threat from Satan to his dim view of contraception, highlighted by donor Foster Friess's indelible "aspirin between the knees" joke -- testing his ability to change the subject to more relevant issues without seeming to shy away from the deeply held convictions that account for much of his support. But to win this debate, the former Pennsylvania senator needs to keep his composure and, above all, seem presidential. Many GOP voters are disenchanted with Romney but remain unconvinced that Santorum has what it takes to fill the big shoes of a presidential nominee.
* Can Romney establish himself as top dog? Romney's task is especially tricky: He needs to dispatch Santorum without reinforcing the growing perception that he's only succeeding by disqualifying his rivals. Even Romney's supporters have grumbled lately that he doesn't seem to have a positive message for his candidacy -- particularly one that would remain relevant even in an improving economy. He's "won" debate after debate since this reality show debuted last year, but without leaving any real memorable moments behind. It seems too much to ask to expect Romney to suddenly uncork a new, inspiring persona -- he's been smart thus far to stick to being his boring, authentic self. But it's also clear that he still, after all this time, hasn't made the sale. Does he change up his game and try to turn it around in the debate? Or does he stay the course and count on his campaign, and his rivals, to take care of the rest? The approach Romney takes will be a revealing glimpse into whether he's desperate to seal the deal, or thinks things will work themselves out off-stage.
* Does Newt Gingrich have one last surprise left in him? Gingrich's fortunes in the campaign have risen and fallen with his debate performances. This debate's moderator, CNN's John King, was on the receiving end of his most memorable anti-media broadside in South Carolina, when he dared to ask Gingrich about his ex-wife's "open marriage" allegation. But Gingrich wilted in later debates when no such opportunities for high dudgeon presented themselves. In the two Florida debates that cemented his downward slide, he seemed listless and uninspired. At the moment, his candidacy is on the rocks. He hasn't won anything other than South Carolina, and he's focused not on the upcoming Michigan and Arizona primaries, where he doesn't seem to have a chance, but on a comeback in his old home state of Georgia, which votes on Super Tuesday, March 6. Whether he can execute that long-shot strategy will depend on which Gingrich shows up at the debate -- the fiery or the inert.
Image: Paul J. Richards / Getty Images
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Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.