The first Republican presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, held in South Carolina several weeks ago, produced precious little drama, in part because some of the major candidates chose not to participate.
Monday night’s debate is likely to be different.
Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and the front-runner in the Republican race to challenge President Obama, will make his first appearance in a national debate in this campaign. Mr. Romney, making his second attempt at the nomination, is all but ignoring his rivals and focusing his rhetoric at Mr. Obama. But as a result, he enters the debate with a target on his back.
Taking aim will be Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, who has made it clear in recent weeks that he intends to cast the Republican contest as a choice between Mr. Romney and himself. In remarks over the weekend leading up to the debate, Mr. Pawlenty assailed what he called “Obamneycare,” a reference to the similar health care plans designed by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney.
But others are eager to disrupt the Pawlenty-Romney tête-à-tête.
Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, is eager to make an impression on the national stage. And after last week’s staff defections, Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, is hoping to demonstrate that he remains a viable alternative to Mr. Romney and Mr. Pawlenty. Neither Ms. Bachmann nor Mr. Gingrich participated in the first debate.
A few notables will remain absent for the debate, which takes place at the Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., and begins at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, says he’s still about 10 days away from an announcement and is skipping the debate. Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, is conducting a bus tour but has not said whether she will run for president. And Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, is said to be seriously thinking about a run, but will not be in New Hampshire on Monday night.
So what will happen? Debates have a way of surprising us — candidates make a gaffe or deliver a clever line that is then remembered. Sometimes several candidates find a way to gang up on a single rival (Mr. Romney?), and other times it feels like everyone is on their own.
If you want to do some debate prep of your own, here are a few things to think about.
* Romney vs. Obama. Everything Mr. Romney has done in the past month suggests that he intends to portray himself as the inevitable choice of Republicans to challenge Mr. Obama, especially on the economy. In his announcement speech in New Hampshire a week ago, Mr. Romney said: “Barack Obama has failed America. When he took office, the economy was in recession. He made it worse. And he made it last longer.”
On Monday, he doubled down on that message, releasing a striking Web video that mocks Mr. Obama’s recent comment that “there are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery.” The video shows people laying down in the middle of a road before standing up, looking into the camera, and saying, “I’m an American, not a bump in the road.”
Look for Mr. Romney to try and keep the focus on Mr. Obama during the debate Monday night. But will his rivals let him do that?
* Pawlenty vs. Romney. Mr. Pawlenty remains toward the bottom of the early political polls as he has struggled to increase his name recognition. He and his advisers clearly believe that the best way to remedy that problem is to go after Mr. Romney.
To that end, Mr. Pawlenty has increasingly focused his rhetoric on Mr. Romney, the front-runner. His “Obamneycare” comment on Sunday is the latest attempt to wound Mr. Romney in the eyes of conservatives who are already suspicious of him for having served a term as governor of one of the most liberal states in the nation.
The only question for Monday night is whether Mr. Pawlenty goes after Mr. Romney in his first answer, or if he waits until later in the debate.
* Bachmann’s Introduction. Ms. Bachmann is not yet an official candidate in the race, but she has been acting like one. In her first debate appearance, the often bombastic, conservative lawmaker is hoping to present herself as a serious, viable alternative to the other candidates in the field.
Ms. Bachmann relishes her appeal to religious conservatives and the Tea Party movement (she is a founding member of the Tea Party caucus in Congress). But she has made a few stumbles in rolling out a likely campaign, including a video-based speech to Iowa Republicans that was widely panned.
Her challenge Monday night? To look presidential without losing the edge that makes her popular with her base.
* Newt’s Return. Mr. Gingrich skipped the first Republican debate and has had a difficult month since. He angered Republican leaders by calling their budget proposals “right-wing social engineering.” He was mocked for having a $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany’s. And virtually his entire staff quit last week after Mr. Gingrich and his wife took a two-week vacation cruise instead of campaigning.
The question for Mr. Gingrich is this: Can a strong debate performance help reassure donors and supporters that his campaign is not teetering on the edge of collapse?
* The Lesser-Knowns. Three other candidates will also be on the stage Monday night. Representative Ron Paul of Texas is often a crowd-pleaser, especially with libertarians. Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, sees Iowa as a place where his conservative views might gain traction, but he could use the New Hampshire debate to present a broader appeal. And Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, is hoping that his second debate performance will boost his name recognition.
* The Sideshow. Debates are primarily an opportunity for candidates to reach a large audience as they seek to offer a contrast with their rivals. But it also serves as a reason for outside groups to drive their messages in an environment rich with national news media. Monday will be no exception.
The Democratic National Committee has assembled a “rapid response” team in Manchester; Brad Woodhouse, the committee’s communications director, sent a Twitter message Monday morning that he was “heading to Manchester, NH for the GOP debate.” Ahead of the event, the committee sent an e-mail with a Washington Post story about Mitt Romney. The subject line of the e-mail: “Mitt Romney. ‘Whoever that is.’”
Other liberal groups based in Washington are also heading north for the debate. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee will run an ad on broadcast and cable television attacking Republicans for what they say are attempts to end Medicare. Another group, Protect Your Care, will do the same, showing ads that say “Stop the Republican Plan to Cut Medicare.”
The groups hope to use the debate as a way to weaken the Republican nominee, whoever that ends up being. Their target? The viewers that tune into the debate, but also the national reporters who will write about it.