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Five things to watch in the Iowa GOP debate

August 11, 2011|By James Oliphant and Michael A. Memoli
(Charlie Neibergall/AP )

Reporting from Ames, Iowa — Thursday night's debate on the campus of Iowa State University will be shown on Fox News Channel and will pit eight contenders for the Republican presidential nomination against each other. Expect plenty of Obama-bashing, but the question, as always with events like these, is whether the candidates will violate Ronald Reagan's commandment and take each other on. Here are some things to keep an eye on.

1)      Is Mitt Romney still Teflon? The GOP front-runner had an easy time of it in the first debate, with Tim Pawlenty most famously standing down from challenging Romney on healthcare. But the pressure is on for someone to dent Romney’s momentum — be it Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann or Jon Huntsman, who is making his debut in the arena.

Romney got some practice in earlier Thursday by sparring with some liberal activists at the Iowa State Fair over taxes. Romney, too, could soon face a pivotal moment with Texas Gov. Rick Perry poised to enter the race. Perry isn't here in Ames, but he's lingering in Texas-sized spirit.

2)      Can Michele Bachmann deliver again? The Minnesota congresswoman was the unquestioned victor of the debate in June in New Hampshire; first she used the platform to declare her presidential ambitions and then showed herself to be more polished and assured than many expected.

But scrutiny of Bachmann’s candidacy has multiplied exponentially since then — and she’s under the microscope like never before. She’s also shown at times on the trail a loose command of the facts. Her supporters love her. The question remains whether Bachmann can widen her appeal.

3)      Can Jon Huntsman get going? He may be the darling of the inside-the-Beltway crowd, but in the real world, his much-ballyhooed campaign looks close to flat-lining. For all intents and purposes, this is the former Utah governor’s introduction to the public, and he needs to make a quick first impression and somehow stand out not only from Romney, but from the pack of second-tier candidates he’s been lumped in with.

4)      Can Tim Pawlenty save himself?  Pawmentum has been as hard to come by as good economic news. Iowa was supposed to be his trampoline to victory, but he seems to have been caught in the springs. There is still talk, however, that he’ll pull off a surprise Saturday at the Ames straw poll and a strong, confident performance Thursday night could potentially help motivate some fence-sitters to make the trip to Ames.  Pawlenty needs a jump-start soon. Things are going to get even tougher for him once Perry is in the race.

5)      Can Rick Santorum get arrested? We’re just picking on Santorum, but the same could apply to the rest of the bottom-dwellers. Herman Cain has a great reputation in conservative circles and some polls show him doing well in states like Iowa, but his candidacy seems stuck in neutral. Santorum has been almost invisible. Newt Gingrich seems to be running an almost symbolic campaign at this point, and Ron Paul, well, he’s a force unto his own. His brand of straight talk will be well received Thursday by his admirers and he may well win the straw poll. But there remains little sign that his campaign is catching on with a wide swath of Republicans.  And then there is Thad McCotter. Who, you ask?  Well, you're not going to find out, because he didn't get invited.

6)      What about Sarah Palin? Because we always have to ask that.

Read full coverage of the debate and the Iowa straw poll in Ames on Politics Now.

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