Thursday night in Iowa, Fox News will host the third big Republican debate of the 2012 presidential nominating race, and it's a "make or break" event for the GOP hopefuls, says William Bennett at CNN. The debate is the last big face-off before Saturday's Ames Straw Poll — an early test of political strength in the Hawkeye State, and one on which some candidates (like Tim Pawlenty) have all but staked their candidacies. Here, five keys to the debate:
1. Romney is the only candidate who doesn't need to shine
"Mitt Romney is in an enviable position for a Republican quasi-frontrunner," says David Weigel at Slate. He will appear on the debate stage with several candidates desperate to win the Ames Straw Poll and prove they're the only viable "anti-Mitt" in the field. But so far, none has met that threshold. And Romney, who's largely ignored Iowa, is "the only candidate who can afford a low finish in Ames," says CNN's Bennett. What's more, he has the money, name recognition, and stature to survive a poor debate performance.
2. Bachmann may be a target
Rep. Michele Bachmann's winning performance in the last debate catapulted her to the front of the pack that's chasing Romney. This time around, look for her to "get some flak" from her under-the-gun rivals, says Jamie Dupree in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
3. An absent candidate could steal the show
Bachmann's rising star could be eclipsed by "the politician whose name is on the lips of Republican officials across the state — Texas Gov. Rick Perry," says Ralph Hallow in The Washington Times. Sure, Perry won't be onstage Thursday, but he's expected to announce his intention to run for president this weekend. As such, Perry will be "the shadow hovering over the debate hall, waiting to suck up the political oxygen," say Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns at Politico. Even if the candidates avoid mentioning Perry, it's unlikely the panelists and moderators will shy away from name-checking him.
4. This is Pawlenty's "make-or-break moment"
"If the Iowa Republican debate were to provide a truly accurate mirror of the race at this juncture, Tim Pawlenty would wear a sandwich board, with a scrawled plea to the state's voters: 'Save me,'" says Frank Bruni at The New York Times. Flailing in the polls, Pawlenty's showing in the debate and straw poll "could be a make-or-break moment for his presidential campaign," says Michael Shear in The New York Times. He started sinking after infamously pulling some punches in the last debate, says CNN's Bennett, so Pawlenty's key task Thursday is to "show he will stand up to fellow Republicans, especially Romney."
5. Huntsman needs to make a strong national debut
This is the first GOP debate for Jon Huntsman and it's "crucial to his campaign," says Holly Bailey at Yahoo! News. A conspicuously moderate candidate, Huntsman got a lot of "early buzz," but his "candidacy has failed to catch fire, and in recent weeks, most of the headlines about his campaign have focused on internal strife among his staff." Look for the former Utah governor to try to "dominate the field on economic issues," say Maeve Reston and Paul West in the Los Angeles Times. Like Romney, Huntsman is staking his candidacy on his "combination of private sector and executive experience."