Guy Benson

Seven Republicans vying for their party's presidential nomination will square off in a nationally-televised debate tonight, and Townhall will offer comprehensive coverage from start to finish.  CNN, WMUR-TV, and the Manchester Union-Leader are co-hosting the event, which begins at 8pm ET on the picturesque campus of Saint Anselm college in Manchester, NH.  Tonight's participants are Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Congressman Ron Paul, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and former Senator Rick Santorum.  The moderator will be CNN's John King.

I am live on site to cover the debate and will be live tweeting the full event throughout the evening on my Twitter account (@guypbenson).  You can follow my feed instant reaction, analysis, and tidbits even if you aren't a Twitter user, simply by clicking HERE.

Greetings from the land of "Live Free or Die."

Appearing on Hugh Hewitt's radio program last week, I predicted that tonight's festivities may devolve into a Mitt Romney pile-on.  CNN apparently agrees; the network's SVP and chief innovation officer, David Bohrman, says organizers made a conscious choice to place Governor Romney at the center podium:  "We determined the order [of candidate positions on stage]," Bohrman tells me.  "It strikes us that Governor Romney is essentially the home town candidate.  We expect a lot of the conversation will revolve around him."  This is a very transparent explanation: CNN anticipates Mitt will face the brunt of the verbal punches tonight, and they believe that placing him front and center will make for good television.  They're probably right, on both counts.  Romney is ahead in several state and national polls, is expected to post an impressive fundraising haul this quarter, and is beginning to be discussed as the frontrunner.
 

Gingrich and Romney, center-stage.

Bohrman also offers that New Hampshire polling played a "major" role in determining where candidates will be situated.  "The higher a candidate is in [New Hampshire polls], the closer to center stage [he or she] will be," he explains.  Romney will occupy the prime slot, flanked by Newt Gingrich (who will also be a juicy target in the wake of his campaign's well-chronicled internal turmoil) and Ron Paul.  Next to Gingrich and Paul will be a pair of Minnesotans -- Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann -- who have been trading barbs in the media this week.  On the outer edges of the semi-circle will be Herman Cain (viewed by many as the winner of last month's South Carolina debate) and Rick Santorum.  Also of note: Former Utah Governor and US Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, is retail politicking here in New Hampshire, but won't participate in tonight's forum.  This strikes me as a somewhat odd choice, since Huntsman would undoubtedly benefit from some heightened name recognition, and New Hampshire seems like relatively fertile ground for his brand of conservatism.

As for the debate's format, CNN officials promise an engaging and modern viewing experience.  Questions will come from all over the venue -- a small hockey arena that has been transformed into a visually stunning, high-tech political studio.  The moderators will steer much of the discussion, but candidates will field queries from a collection of ("well vetted") undecided New Hampshire Republican voters, some of whom will be in the audience.  Other uncommitted voters will submit questions from satellite locations in three Granite State cities: Plymouth, Rochester, and Hancock.  The GOP contenders will also grapple with questions posed by television viewers from across the country, who are encouraged to react in real time through Facebook and Twitter.
 

The very impressive setting.

"It's very possible that the next President of the United States will be on this stage tonight," Bohrnman tells a clutch of reporters.  "We want viewers to get to see and experience what these candidates really think."  He says the format breaks free from the "traditional, rigid format of lights and buzzers," and offers a more "relaxed" window into candidates' worldviews, relatively free from "strict time limits."
 

Recapping: The television broadcast airs nationwide beginning at 8pm ET on CNN.  Follow my twitter feed for immediate reactions, and check back on the Tipsheet for a post-debate analysis from the "spin room."  We'll also have an open comments thread throughout the debate -- feel free to share your thoughts on how each candidate fares.  May the best man (or woman) win!


The please spin zone.

Parting Thought: Will anyone in New Hampshire be watching tonight's debate, which directly conflicts with a certain event that will consume the attention of countless New Englanders?


Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography