ABC News, Yahoo! News and The Des Moines Register are hosting yet another Republican presidential debate Saturday night, but political junkies are paying special attention to this one. The nationally televised debate at Drake University in Des Moines is the first major GOP debate since Newt Gingrich's surge in the polls, and it's one of two debates in Iowa before the Jan. 3 caucuses kick off the primary season. "This is the biggest alpha dog battle of the campaign so far," Republican strategist Alex Castellanos tells Politico. Here, four things to look out for:
1. Will Newt live up to "sky-high expectations"?
With Herman Cain out of the race and low-polling Jon Huntsman not invited, each of the six remaining candidates "will likely end up with a bigger cut of air time," says Maggie Haberman at Politico. But the press and the moderators will focus on the brewing Romney-Gingrich showdown. Gingrich has a 14-point lead in Iowa, largely built on his solid debating, so he's "the one to beat," says Megan VerHelst at Patch. But there are risks for Newt, too, says Tommy Christopher in Mediaite. "He has to fight sky-high expectations, fueled partially by his own hubris," that he would smoke Obama in a general election debate. "A poor performance Saturday would seriously undermine that."
2. Which Mitt and which Newt will show up?
"We know the debate is Newt vs. Mitt, but... which Newt and which Mitt"? political scientist Dan Schnur tells Politico. "Will it be smart, scholarly Newt or bombastic and incendiary Newt? Will it be nice, cautious Mitt or nasty, desperate Mitt? That's what's worth tuning in for." Romney has to "alpha-dog Newt," says Castellanos, showing he's the stronger candidate "without being small, political, puerile." Gingrich should stay positive and emphasize party unity, campaign strategist Kellyanne Conway tells U.S. News. Gingrich "is a historian," and he knows "people always go for the more optimistic, positive candidate."
3. Will the other candidates pile on Newt?
Gingrich's GOP kumbaya schtick is a big reason he has done so well in past debates, especially since his rivals "pitched in by not attacking" him in return, says Mediaite's Christopher. Now that he's solidly in the lead, "Gingrich is in for a tough debate, any way you slice it." Not only will he "face attacks from every direction," but he's shown himself to be pretty bad at defending himself. Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann have already "telegraphed hits on him as being inconsistent," or even a hypocrite, says Politico's Haberman. It's unlikely "Gingrich will be able to stay above the fray, especially if one of his opponents goads him with an attack."
4. Will Ron Paul get a big Iowa boost?
Gingrich is comfortably ahead in all Iowa polls, but in second or third place is the much-better-organized Paul, says Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. He narrowly lost the Ames straw poll to Bachmann, and this network debate will give the often-ignored candidate a big platform to "shower the electorate with his anti-Gingrich message." If he catches fire in the debate, and the weather is bad on Jan. 3, I believe "Ron Paul will shock the world and win the Iowa caucuses," says John Thorpe in Forbes.