Daniel Doherty

After Herman Cain’s unexpected exodus and Jon Huntsman’s failure to qualify (he didn’t meet the polling threshold) six Republican candidates will face off tonight at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. The debate, moderated by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, is co-sponsored by ABC News, ABC5/WOP-DT, the Des Moines Register and the Republican Party of Iowa. Indeed, while most Republican primary voters are tired of the seemingly endless string of Republican debates, tonight’s showdown should be worthy of your attention. This may be, in my opinion, the last remaining forum in which candidates can explain their vision for America before the Iowa Caucuses on January 3. Considering the holidays are rapidly approaching and most Americans are spending times with their families – and probably not following the news as closely as they normally would – I suspect this will be one of the last opportunities for the remaining GOP hopefuls to make their case and court voters before the new year.

Certainly, tonight could be a pivotal moment in the campaign between the two undisputed frontrunners. Newt Gingrich is leading in the polls in all but one of the early primary states and there seems to be no sign of his campaign imploding anytime soon. The former House Speaker, who has built his reputation this primary season by combating the media and showering his GOP rivals with kindness, will undoubtedly be the center of attention and have the most to lose. Nevertheless, his impressive performances in every debate thus far suggest he’ll be ready and well prepared.

Mitt Romney, however, can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines. I expect him to make an aggressive and nuanced pitch to the American people by contrasting his own record with that of the Speaker. With Newt’s inexorable momentum, this might be the only way to convince Republicans why he is the best candidate running for President. With less than four weeks until caucus-goers cast their ballots in Iowa, it’s also time for the former Massachusetts governor to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. Simply put, Team Romney needs to do something to galvanize more support behind his once high-flying candidacy. Let’s see if that plays out tonight. Remember, after his demoralizing second place finish in ‘08, Romney knows firsthand the consequences of losing Iowa. This reality, I suspect, will induce him to draw first blood.

The ascendance of Ron Paul is also intriguing. Rush Limbaugh, of all people, suggested earlier this week that Ron Paul could win the Iowa caucuses. This was a starling admission coming from the most outspoken conservative radio talk show host in America. Indeed, Paul is polling as high as 18 percent in three recent surveys conducted in the Hawkeye State. And yet, despite protestations from his campaign that the Texas congressman has been perpetually ignored by the media – with only six candidates participating in tonight’s debate he’ll certainly have his moment in the sun. The question, however, is how will he frame his argument? Will it be centered on domestic and fiscal issues – as sometimes happens – or will he focus instead on his opposition to nation building and interventionism? Clearly, his foreign policy has been known to polarize certain wings of the Republican Party against him. Thus, it will be interesting to see what angle he plays tonight during the deliberations.

The absence of Herman Cain, moreover, should make for an interesting dynamic. Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum are all polling demonstrably higher as a result of his exit. Not surprisingly, I anticipate issues of faith and family to be discussed at some length tonight – not necessarily as a point of contention – but as a way for each candidate to outline his/her positions on the various social issues dear to Iowans. These three candidates, after all, are campaigning (and have campaigned) for the Tea Party/social conservative/evangelical vote. On the other hand, with the race unfolding as a burgeoning horse race between Gingrich and Romney, will any of these second-tier contenders take on the frontrunners? Will they, for example, confront Mitt Romney on his congenital flip-flopping or bring up Newt Gingrich’s alleged profiteering as a Washington lobbyist?

In any event, the debate will air nationally this evening at 9:00 PM ET on the ABC Television Network. It will also be Live-Streamed on Yahoo! as well as ABCNEWS.com, MyABC5.com, and DesMoinesRegister.com. As always, tune in just before 9:00 PM for the Townhall/Hot Air team’s live coverage!


Daniel Doherty

Daniel Doherty is Townhall's Deputy News Editor. Follow him on Twitter @danpdoherty.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography