To date, the Republican race to replace President Obama has been filled more with teases than tremors, a time of under-the-radar rollouts and soft launches -- one that has afforded voters little guidance with which to start distinguishing one of the bevy of potential nominees from the other.
But Monday night in Manchester, N.H., in what can be viewed as the official kickoff to the 2012 campaign, things finally get moving.
Each of the seven Republicans on the stage have something to prove, with early-season front-runner Mitt Romney with perhaps the most to lose. And the opportunity likely will be there for one of the other six to emerge from the pack. More than anything, however, the candidates will be introducing themselves to a voting public that is just beginning to pay attention.
The debate will be broadcast by CNN and moderated by correspondent John King. Several hundred invited members of the audience will be on hand at the hockey arena at St. Anselm College, along with several dozen undecided Republican voters, some of whom will get to question the candidates during the debate. Other questions will be beamed in from three remote sites around New Hampshire, as well as from social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
Here are 10 things to watch tonight:
1. Can Mitt Romney explain away Romneycare?
For months, Romney’s campaign has tried to have it both ways: It has wanted to surround the candidate with a certain aura of inevitability while at the same time striving to stay low enough below the radar to avoid inviting attack. But now, with Romney’s early front-runner status seemingly certified by a number of recent polls, his rivals are turning up the heat. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty appears dead-set on leveraging Romney's biggest weakness, the healthcare issue, lumping the plan that Romney helped enact while governor of Massachusetts with the similar Democratic plan passed by Congress last year. “Obamneycare” is a term worthy of Mary Poppins or Lewis Carroll, but Pawlenty or someone else likely will make the association. And Romney again will be forced to walk the line between distinguishing the two plans while not disavowing his own.
2. Can Tim Pawlenty quicken anyone’s pulse?
No one will be looking to score points off of Romney more than the former Minnesota governor, who is trying to position himself as his no-nonsense, economy-minded alternative. Pawlenty has been trying to find traction in the polls all year -- and Tuesday presents him with perhaps his best chance so far to make some headway. But he must still counter the image that he’s simply too bland for prime time. Even when Pawlenty garnered some unsolicited praise from corporate titan Jack Welch last week, Welch had to add a disclaimer, saying Pawlenty wasn’t “the jazziest guy in town.” Can Pawlenty prove 'em wrong and bebop tonight?
3. Can Michele Bachmann appear presidential?
The Minnesota congresswoman hasn’t officially declared for the White House, but that appears to be a formality. An unrepentant conservative with a penchant for rhetorical bomb-tossing, Bachmann on Tuesday has an opportunity to show that she’s comfortable mixing passion with policy. In doing so, she could mollify some skeptics who view her simply as a tea-infused, regional warrior who lacks big-stage chops and at the same time give more credence to the notion that she could win the Iowa caucuses.
4. Can Newt Gingrich rise from the dead?
The former House speaker will be standing upright when Monday’s debate begins, but many in the political class have his campaign already measured for a pine box. The pressure will be on Gingrich to show that his candidacy at this point is more than a vanity project. To that end, he’ll also have to display some of the discipline that has eluded him on the trail so far, a recklessness that caused him to lash out at Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, led him to take a Greek vacation just as he was ramping up his campaign efforts, and prompted six key aides to walk out on him last week.
5. Can Ron Paul look like anything more than a fringe candidate?
The Texas libertarian has his loyalists, for certain. And they can rattle off his platform -- an end to the Federal Reserve, isolationism in foreign policy, drug legalization -- to no end. But that fealty has never translated to widespread appeal for the idiosyncratic Dr. Paul. The question remains whether he can articulate his vision for a reduced federal footprint in a way that resonates with a larger portion of the electorate. If he can, then he has a chance to at least play the role of spoiler in some contests. Given the anti-establishment sentiment pulsating through the Republican Party, he may never have a better chance.