Monday's 'critical' GOP debate: 5 predictions

With heavy hitters like Mitt, Michele, and Newt attending the first big debate of the GOP nominating season, what can politics watchers expect?

Presumed frontrunner Mitt Romney
(Image credit: J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

New Hampshire is hosting what's technically the second Republican presidential debate of the 2012 election Monday night, but it's the first to attract presumed frontrunner Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. While Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum will be there, too, rumored GOP contenders Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and Jon Huntsman all declined invitations to participate. What can we expect when most of the top 2012 Republicans share the stage for the first time in this "critical" debate? Here, five predictions:

1. Everyone will gang up on Romney

The former Massachusetts governor is an "uneasy frontrunner" with plenty of political liabilities, says John Whitesides in Reuters. So the debate's "real competition" will be among the other six candidates who are "vying to lead the party's anti-Romney wing." Romney will need to effectively parry "each wave of the assault," says Kevin Blaum in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.'s The Times Leader. But with six against one, "it’s difficult to imagine he will not see some slippage in post-debate surveys."

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2. Gingrich will most likely sink

This debate is Newt's best shot to "revive any hope of continuing in the race for president," says Alex Pappas at The Daily Caller. After his top campaign staff abandoned him last week, only a "commanding performance" can dampen "the narrative that Gingrich's campaign is essentially dead." Conversely, a weak showing will seal Gingrich's downfall. Of course, says Matt Latimer at The Daily Beast, Gingrich is perhaps the most experienced debater of the bunch. But still, after weeks of disastrous campaigning, his chances of turning the tide are about a million to one.

3. Bachmann will turn heads

The Minnesota congresswoman has a real shot at breaking out, says Latimer at The Daily Beast. Not only will she be the only female debater, but her "sometimes over-the-top feistiness" could play very well with the GOP base and Tea Partiers — imagine combining "Sarah Palin, Andrew Breitbart, and Mike Huckabee with PT Barnum." Of all the candidates, Bachmann "stays on message better than anyone," says Tea Party Nation's Judson Phillips, as quoted by The Daily Caller, and if she can "really go after Romney, I think she could get some really overdue traction."

4. Huntsman's decision to sit it out will doom his campaign

With the debate almost certain to be a Romney pile-on, it's hard to blame "the thoughtful Huntsman" and Palin for sitting this one out and letting their rivals "soften up the current leader," says The Times Leader's Blaum. But it's an especially risky decision for Huntsman, says Kasie Hunt at Politico, since he plans on ditching Iowa and making New Hampshire's primary "the centerpiece of his likely presidential campaign." You've got to show up to win.

5. Nobody will watch

Monday's debate is being "touted as the most important event so far in the campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination," says The Nashua Telegraph in an editorial. But it's more like "spring training baseball" — the hits and misses will be "long forgotten" by the New Hampshire primaries, when many of the "minor leaguers" will have long left the field. CNN isn't helping, adds The Daily Beast's Latimer. In a "brilliantly timed move," the debate is being broadcast at the same time as the Stanley Cup finals and "the most dramatic episode of The Bachelorette yet." So basically, "no one is going to be watching tonight, except for me and Candy Crowley."

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