Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, left, talks with Greg Hudson, a high… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
Reporting from Los Angeles and Des Moines — Amid new anxiety about the economy and a plunging stock market, the Republican presidential candidates in Thursday's debate will be united in their criticism of President Obama.
But with Texas Gov. Rick Perry waiting in the wings and several candidates pinning their survival hopes on Iowa's straw-vote test Saturday, the real question is who will be able to turn the latest economic calamities to their advantage and gain ground in a contest that is about to change shape. The eight candidates meeting at the forum at Iowa State University will include former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who is making his 2012 debate debut.
For Huntsman, who served until recently as U.S. ambassador to China, and front-runner Mitt Romney — who are both staking their candidacies on their combination of private sector and executive experience — the Iowa debate may be a last chance to try to dominate the field on economic issues before sharing the stage with Perry, who is expected to center his likely campaign on Texas' recent economic successes.
In the midst of the nation's economic turmoil, there is little room for error. One needs only to look back to the last presidential contest, when GOP nominee John McCain argued during the 2008 market meltdown that the "fundamentals of the economy" were strong, to see the potential for a damaging mistake.
"There are many more things that can go wrong in a debate like this than can go right," said strategist Steve Schmidt, who guided McCain's 2008 effort. The candidates' "challenge is to begin connecting with the Republican primary voting audience and to convey that they are the person best able to take the fight to President Obama."
Romney has kept an unwavering focus on the economy even as his rivals have attacked him on other issues, including the healthcare plan he championed as governor of Massachusetts. His task Thursday night, Schmidt said, will be to insulate himself from those darts while "communicating in a clear and understandable way … his economic vision to get the country moving again."
While Romney and Huntsman will be keying their messages to a national audience, the short-term stakes are highest for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who are vying to win Saturday's nonbinding Ames straw poll.
Paul, a fringe candidate in the 2008 race, is now credited even by his rivals with helping shift the focus of the Republican Party to the nation's burgeoning debt and fidelity to the Constitution. But his challenge Thursday night will be convincing voters that he is disciplined enough to serve as the party's standard-bearer.
The televised forum (Fox News Channel, 6 p.m. PDT) also carries significant risks for Bachmann. She has strained to convince some Republican primary voters that her thin political resume has prepared her for the Oval Office, even as her popularity has grown in Iowa, where social and religious conservatives play a major role in party politics.
Her well-received performance in a June debate has raised expectations for her performance. Given the concerns about whether she is ready to be president, she is expected to try to stay above the fray if she becomes a target Thursday night. So far she has brushed off attacks from Pawlenty and other rivals, focusing instead on trying to broaden her appeal beyond the "tea party" movement.
Strategists agree that the reviews from Iowa this week will be most crucial for Pawlenty, who is counting on a strong finish in the straw vote to assure donors that he is viable after being consistently outpaced in the polls.
He is expected to use the debate to try to recover from his recent failure to engage Romney over his health program in Massachusetts, which reinforced voters' doubts about his toughness and his ability to confront Obama in a general election.
Pawlenty has sharpened his attacks on Obama, accusing the president of making the nation's economic problems "exponentially worse," and he has vowed not to let a similar opportunity slip.
"He's got to figure out some way to distinguish himself — Bachmann has been eating his lunch and taking up all the oxygen in the race," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor at the University of Texas who specializes in presidential politics. "He's kind of on his last legs here."
Huntsman is also trying to gain traction after his late entry into the contest. In New Hampshire recently, Huntsman has drilled into Romney's economic record as a governor, charging that the level of job growth he presided over pales compared with his own record in Utah. At the same time, Huntsman has faulted Obama, who sent him to China, for showing "zero leadership."
But like Pawlenty before him, the former diplomat has shown some reluctance to go on the attack and may find himself challenged to repeat those criticisms on national TV, particularly when sharing the stage with more vociferous Obama critics such as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain.
Veteran political strategist Charlie Black, who helped coach George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and McCain before debates, said the rule he has urged candidates to follow over the years is never to "say anything that you haven't planned or prepared or rehearsed."
"Do they all do that? No, of course not," Black said.
Reston reported from Los Angeles and West from Des Moines. Times staff writer Seema Mehta in Iowa contributed to this report.