The stock market is in free fall: The Dow Jones Industrial Average has lost 675 points or almost nine percent of its value in the past two days alone, so it is likely the economy will be a big part of the debate. The execution of Troy Davis in Georgia Wednesday night will doubtless be a subject of discussion as well. On foreign policy, the Israel/Palestine issue is at the top of the stack; and funding FEMA - UH-gain - will probably be dealt with.
Here's the pre-game analysis.
Gov. Rick Perry - This is his third debate so he loses the advantage of amateur status. He has to perform as well as the others on the stage meaning he has to do better than he did in the September 12th debate. That means crisper answers on Social Security, HPV, and the death penalty; as well as a broader understanding of the issues concerning the Middle East and China.
The Perry rocket has stopped rising after a spectacular launch, and it will be up to him tonight to reignite the second stage.
RealClearPolitics.com Average among GOP Voters: 28.4%
Gov. Mitt Romney - Romney has gotten the chance to catch his breath with just about everyone turning their attention to Perry in the last two debates. Romney appears to be closing the gap against Perry and leading in polls released over the past few days in New Hampshire and Florida.
While the National Association of Political Pundits believe RomneyCare is a deal-killer, I think the Romney campaign's decision to speak to moderate Republicans, Independents, and Conservative Democrats is strategically smart because the "electability" issue will turn on whether that group trusts Perry or Romney.
Look for Romney's language and manner to be just-this-side of stiff so he looks Presidential.
RCP Average: 20.6%
Rep. Ron Paul - Paul just won't go away. He has a deep, deep well of supporters who keep sending him money so he keeps plugging away. The campaign has done a great job of making the National Association of Political Reporters (not Pundits) take a look at their pieces to make certain they've included Paul in their coverage.
It is not clear that Paul's state-by-state numbers match his national support, so he will have to keep nipping at fellow-Texan Rick Perry's heels and will continue to get to make his case during these debates.
RCP Average: 8.9%
Rep. Michele Bachmann - This may be Bachmann's last chance to climb back into a race which she dominated for about two weeks in the run-up to the Iowa Straw Poll. She has to get beyond the "this is what I fought for in Congress" line and begin laying out a broader vision for America.
With former campaign chairman Ed Rollins' comment a few days ago that she doesn't have the resources to get past Iowa, financing the campaign has become a major issue and she needs a bravura performance tonight to convince them to open their wallets.
RPC Average: 7.7%
Rep. Newt Gingrich - Gingrich's campaign is living - literally - debate to debate. He has gotten lots of applause in the past few debates by attacking the press for "gotcha" questions and has generated on-line donations on the strength of them.
If he is going to be taken seriously as a candidate he has to pivot from looking for an applause lines to making the case that he is the only one on the stage with the experience, having been Speaker, of looking at the entire nation - not just one state as the Governors and Senator, or one Congressional District as the two Members of Congress.
RPC Average: 6.6%
Herman Cain - If I hear "my 9-9-9 plan" one more time I'm going to throw a pizza at my TV. Cain's message of having built a large pizza business is good enough to keep him in the race, but doesn't appear to have the power to expand beyond a small percentage of Republican voters.
As with Bachmann, Cain needs to show he has a depth of understanding about how to get us out of the mess we are in that he hasn't been able to clearly explain to this point.
RPC Average: 5.6%
Sen. Rick Santorum - Santorum is the darling that portion of the Evangelical Christian Right which, for whatever reason, doesn't like either Perry or Bachmann. His numbers are steady, but small. He can stay in the conversation by continuing to come at Perry from Perry's right which, if Perry drifts that way to fend off Santorum and Bachmann, plays into Romney's hands.
RPC Average: 2.0%
Gov. Jon Huntsman - Huntsman's campaign is pretending he is surging on the basis of a poll taken in New Hampshire showing him at 10%. One of the things we know about political polls is: If it is a serious outlier from all the other polls, there was something wrong with the questions, the sample, the time of day, or . whatever.
Huntsman will get plenty of air time because reporters (moderators) like him, but discounting that one NH poll, not many voters do.
RPC Average: 1.4%
Gov. Gary Johnson - Johnson is the former Governor of New Mexico and has been added to the field for tonight's debate. That's just fine with Perry and Romney - they have to answer fewer questions. But with just about nothing to lose, Johnson has the capacity to muscle the other minor candidates off the screen.
RPC Average: About 1%
Prior to tonight, I thought it might be better to have these debate without a live audience. I am now absolutely in favor of doing this debates without it. After two hours of listening to trained campaign volunteers squeal with delight like they were watching a reprise of Riverdance; or moan in distress as if they had just been told by the professor to take out a pen and paper for a snap quiz, I believe I am correct.
Think I'm making it up? At the first mention of his 9-9-9 plan, the crowd cheered for Herman Cain like he had just scored the go-ahead touchdown at the Superbowl. Really?
Michele Bachmann - No one had more at stake than Bachmann and she rose to the task. I thought she was less strident in her tone, and remained more on target with her answers than in the previous two debates. It may not be enough to get her back on the track she was in Iowa, but she was in the debate and, therefore, gets to stay in the game.
Newt Gingrich - Gets to live another day on the campaign trail. He was serious and rational in his answers while keeping his temper in check.
Rick Perry - Whether or not you agreed with his answer on in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, it was clear he is taking these debates seriously and had worked on that answer and his immigration answer.
Mitt Romney - Obviously the campaign decided he needed to go toe-to-toe with Perry, rather than rising above the fray. There must be something in Romney's polling which showed he needed to show more toughness with Perry. That's the advantage of having detailed polling information. Nevertheless he seemed to be trying too hard and appeared to be out-of-character.
Jon Huntsman - He played to a draw as well. He made it clear he knows his stuff and kept up his energy level without sounding shrill. What was with that yellow tie?
Herman Cain - Got the 9-9-9 in and sounded less like he was reciting memorized lines than he has in previous debates. He won't be the nominee, but he's edging closer to being chosen to be Commissioner of the IRS.
Rick Santorum - If he's not on the Romney campaign payroll, he should have to list himself as donating services. He spent the night attacking Perry for a lack of ideological purity which Santorum claims unto himself.
Ron Paul - He didn't get as many questions as he probably should have given his standing in the polls, and he didn't seem to be as sharp as in previous debates through the middle of the show. He picked up steam in the last half hour, but he still seemed a little off.
Gary Johnson - Maybe they need to raise the threshold for participation from one percent to three or four percent. Other than the dog poop line, he added nothing to the conversation.