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GOP hopefuls in search of breakout moment in Iowa debate

August 11, 2011|By Michael A. Memoli
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — The first Republican debate lacked the party's biggest names. The second lacked any major fireworks.

Now, as the GOP's announced presidential hopefuls meet again for a debate in Iowa on Thursday, arguably all but one of the candidates are in search of a dynamic-shifting moment as the nominating race enters a decisive phase.

For Mitt Romney, Thursday offered more evidence of his front-runner status. The leader in national polling and fundraising, he sparred with liberal activists as he toured the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, focused more on the current president than his GOP rivals.

"I'm not going to raise taxes! And if you want somebody who will raise taxes, you can vote for Barack Obama," he said.

The key question before the Ames debate is whether the other Republicans would seek to challenge Romney -- something they seemed reluctant to do in the last debate.

Michele Bachmann used that last forum in New Hampshire to announce her candidacy. Her dazzling performance launched her from the back of the pack to the top tier, inviting new scrutiny along the way.

She canceled a planned event Thursday to huddle with advisors in preparation for the debate, as observers wondered if she could deliver a more substantive performance and show appeal beyond her committed "tea party" base.

For Tim Pawlenty, this week's debate and straw poll in Iowa loomed as a critical moment. His lackluster showing at the June debate robbed his campaign of any momentum it had started to build. His fatal error: passing on a chance to follow through on his criticism of the healthcare plan Romney signed into law in Massachusetts.

New to the stage was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. He entered the race in June to considerable fanfare, but has struggled to gain traction, or even make a strong case for his candidacy. He's already announced he won't compete in Iowa's leadoff caucuses, and would be making a broader case to Republican voters seeing him for the first time.

Looming over the affair were two Republican heavyweights about to descend on Iowa, but neither officially in the race at this point. Aides to Texas Gov. Rick Perry revealed just hours before the debate that he would become an official candidate over the weekend.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin plans to arrive in the Hawkeye State on Friday on her "One Nation" bus tour, on hiatus since she toured the Northeast in early June.

Neither is participating in either the debate or Saturday's Iowa straw poll, traditionally seen as an early test of organizational strength in Iowa.

A CNN poll released Thursday showed Perry and Palin trailing only Romney in the GOP field. Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, like Pawlenty and Huntsman, were in low-single digits.

Thursday's debate was sponsored by Fox News Channel, the Washington Examiner and the Iowa Republican Party.

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