Guy Benson
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Greetings from the picturesque campus of the Ivy League's Dartmouth College, the site of tonight's Republican presidential tilt.  The Tipsheet will have live coverage of the event, which kicks off at 8:00 pm ET and airs on Bloomberg television (time to break out the TV guide, I suspect).  Before you read my take on what to watch for tonight, check out the latest poll from Gallup, which puts the three top-tier candidates within five points of eachother.


Storylines


(1) Iran: Although the debate is supposed to focus almost exclusively on economic issues, today's breaking news bombshell that the Iranian government has been caught financing and coordinating terrorist attacks against targets inside the United States should absolutely be addressed.  The candidate with the most granular understanding of the issues at play on this subject is Rick Santorum. I'm eager to hear what he, and all of his rivals, have to say.  (Except for Ron Paul, who doesn't think Iranian nuclear aggression is a biggie, and who will find some way to blame us for Iran's poisonous treachery).  Another wrinkle: Could Eric Holder's involvement in this story provide an opening for someone to finally raise Solyndra and/or Fast & Furious in one of these debates? 

(2) Chris Christie's endorsement of Mitt Romney will likely get some play.  Will Rick Perry -- or someone else -- pull the Northeastern RINO card?  A Perry spokesman has already come pretty close

(3) Mormonism: Rick Perry was recently introduced at an event by a pastor who has called Mormonism a "cult."  Today, Mitt Romney demanded that Perry repudiate this view, arguing that the Consitution forbids a religious test for the presidency, and that anti-Mormon bigotry is ugly and has no place in American politics.  A Perry spokesman has already declined to acede Romney's request, calling the issue a "distraction."  I'll be stunned if this kerfuffle doesn't spill over into the debate, and Rick Perry had better be prepared with a damn good answer.

(4) Occupy Wall Street questions are almost inevitable.  The base cannot stand the mob of hippies, communists, anti-capitalists, and sundry lefty hangers-on who comprise the bulk of the "movement."  Organized labor and the Democrat Party establishment are getting on board, too.  He (or she) with the best Occupy Wall Street-related zinger might win one of the biggest headlines tomorrow.


Candidates


Mitt Romney - The former Massachusetts Governor is in his own backyard, leading in the polls, and feeiling buoyed by the Christie "get."  Deep down, he knows that Rush is right:  Absent a tectonic shift in the race, Mitt will be the Republican nominee.  His goal is to keep things moving on the current trajectory.  It will be interesting to see if anyone besides Rick Perry will try to jolt Romney out of cruise control.

Herman Cain - With first-tier status comes first-tier scrutiny (and first-tier stage positioning).  Expect more exploration of Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan, which I called for in an earlier post.  It's been fascinating to watch the Romney-Cain partnership develop over the last few debates.  Neither one has anything bad to say about the other, with Rick Perry hardest hit.  At some point, if Cain is going to win this thing, he's going to have to attack his ally.  Will that first salvo come tonight?

Rick Perry - The guy is still raking in major bucks and has never lost a campaign in his life.  Reports of Perry's demise are -- for now -- premature, but the comeback train has to leave the station soon.  Perry's campaign unleashed a brutal attack ad against Romneycare this week.  Almost on cue (arguably, directly on cue), the White House has leaked the story that several top Romney healthcare advisors were actively involved in crafting Obamacare.  If ever there were a time to really tee off on the frontrunner, tonight would be the night.  Perry's probably got the most to gain, and he seems to enjoy mixing it up, so he'll likely lead the charge.  But will be be able to pull it off succinctly and convincingly, unlike his slow-motion trainwreck in Orlando?  The good news: Perry's son says his dad will be "well-rested" this time.

Newt Gingrich - I briefly heard Newt compare Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party movement on a local radio show this morning.  I wonder what he means by that, and whether he's read Ann Coulter's column on the subject.

Rick Santorum - The former Senator's expertise and greatest appeal to primary voters lie in the realms of foreign affairs and social issues.  Does this mean he'll he flounder in an economic debate?  Not at all, but he may feel less relevant.

Jon Huntsman - He needs a strong showing in New Hampshire to justify the continuation of his campaign, so Romney's the guy to beat.  But some anti-Mormon rhetoric has seeped into this race over the last few days, and Huntsman might join forces with Romney to beat it back.

Michele Bachmann - One of her previous high water marks came here in the Granite State, when she made a stellar debate debut in June.  She'll try to recapture the magic tonight.

Ron Paul - The retiring Texas Representative says many of his "extreme" views of three years ago have been vindicated by intervening events, and have now gained broader credibility and acceptance.  He'll have another chance to explain why tonight.


Tonight's debate is being co-sponsored by Bloomberg, the Washington Post, and a local television station.  Between Romneycare, Mormonism, and the "Occupy" mob, there could be major fireworks on tap.  Tune in, and follow our live chat here at Townhall.

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Guy Benson

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

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography