Despite occurring on a weekend, last Saturday night's ABC News debate was the highest-rated affair of the election cycle -- although airing on a broadcast network certainly raised its profile. Now that we're inside three weeks until Iowans participate in their quadrennial caucus ritual, the stakes -- and the attacks -- are heating up. Tonight's Republican presidential debate on Fox News Channel is the last major event of its kind before voting begins, and it could very well turn out be one of the decisive events of this primary season. Let's examine what to look for during tonight's political gladiator match:
Newt Gingrich - As several former frontrunners are well aware, being top dog has its hazards. If on-air ads, conservative punditry, and rivals' rhetoric are any indication of coming attractions, the long knives will be out for Newt tonight. Recent polling indicates that Newtmentum may be slowing considerably, if not reversing itself. Anecdotally, my discussions with voters bears this out. People have been telling me they "like Newt," but that they're starting to discover elements of his record and past statements seem unsettling. Some say they're re-starting the process of casting about for an acceptable choice. I'll eat my hat if Gingrich's comment about Bain Capital doesn't come up tonight, and you'd better believe Mitt Romney will be loaded for bear. Newt's task will be to confidently defend his record and stick to his "relentlessly positive" campaign pledge -- which he's broken on several recent occasions, with unwelcome results. Newt's performance on Sean Hannity's radio show yesterday was the template for success. He was at ease, fluent on issues (as always), and likeable. Then again, Sean didn't rattle his cage like his competitors will tonight.
Mitt Romney - The former Massachusetts Governor has been sitting at the number two position for virtually the entire cycle. From a positive perspective, he's been remarkably stable throughout the process. The other side of that coin, though, is that he's been unable to break through his stubborn 23-26 percent ceiling. Romney doesn't need to hit a homerun tonight; he needs to register another steady showing, stressing his executive experience and relentless focus on jobs and the economy. Don't look now, but he's still very much in the Hawkeye hunt. He, too, appeared on Hannity's radio program yesterday afternoon, and he was nearly flawless. Nearly. When Sean played him the clip of Newt going after his record in the private sector, Romney counter-attacked ably up until the moment when he couldn't resist responding to Gingrich's needling about the $10,000 bet episode. He snarked that Newt isn't the one to talk about out-of-touch spending habits, considering the massive bill he racked up at Tiffany's. It was a small and petty moment. Romney should avoid getting sucked into this attack tunnel again tonight. It ultimately benefits neither him, nor the field as a whole.
Ron Paul - The Texas Congressman has been all over the airwaves here this week, boosting his limited government absolutism and acting as a one-man wrecking ball against Newt Gingrich. Earlier today, Paul went beyond just hammering Newt's "serial hypocrisy," he also contrasted his military service with the former Speaker's "several deferments." Ron Paul means business here. Several polls show him near the top of the heap in Iowa, and with the political terrain shifting on an almost-daily basis, who knows where he might end up. We've seen a flurry of stories suggesting he could win the state, followed by a wave of rebuttal pieces. Another complicating factor? A handful of prominent conservative activists and opinion makers are asking Iowans to vote for Paul in order to throw the process into further chaos, and drag it out. This could allow other not-Mitt/not-Newt candidates a longer time-horizon to rise from the ashes. What we do know is that Paul's core supporters will turn out in early January...but can he raise his own ceiling to attract enough undecideds to put him over the top?
Rick Perry - This may be an under-reported trend, but there is a significant amount of buzz building around Rick Perry's candidacy at the grassroots level in Iowa. Although the media's been focusing on his "values" TV ad, the commercial I've heard repeatedly as I've driven along I-29 is a devastating radio spot just leveling Gingrich and Romney on healthcare policy. He also has a new television ad running taking aim at the same duo. The Perry town hall meeting I attended in Council Bluffs yesterday was well attended and well received. When I've spoken to voters about the Texas Governor, terms like "job creator" and "successful governor" are beginning to eclipse mentions of his gaffes and communication shortcomings. His forceful effort in Saturday's debate has certainly provided a spark, too. There are a number of candidates hoping to springboard toward the top tier in Iowa tonight, and Perry may be the best positioned member of that group to do so. That said, it'll probably require a memorably good performance. Can Perry thrive under that pressure and erase his previous missteps?
Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum - I've grouped these two together because they essentially occupy an identical corner of the political map. Both are prominent social conservatives. Both have spent an enormous amount of time in Iowa. And their respective campaigns are counting on surprisingly robust finishes here to catapult them forward in the race. Failure to achieve that goal could spell the end of the road for one (or both) of them.
Jon Hunstman - The former Utah Governor and US Ambassador is not going win, or even place well, in Iowa. He is, however, surging in New Hampshire -- the basket into which he's placed most of his electoral eggs. He didn't participate in the ABC News debate because of his weak national polling position, so tonight will mark a chance to reassert himself -- if not reintroduce himself. At the beginning of his campaign, Huntsman claimed the mantle of the MSM-pleasing, self-congratulatingly reasonable, ostentatiously thoughtful, moderate. That hasn't worked out too well, so he's done a partial reboot, and is now trying to appeal to conservatives. His record actually lends itself to that task more than his detractors may suspect. Will be continue to court the Right tonight, or will he revert to form?
Tonight's debate kicks off at 9pm ET on Fox News. As I mentioned in my "sneak peek" post (if you haven't checked out the exclusive photos, I'd really encourage you to click through), the event will be moderated by Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Neil Cavuto -- who I think is a terrific addition. We'll have real-time coverage here on the Tipsheet, so please swing by and join us! I'll also hammer out a winners & losers piece during the post-game, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
UPDATE - Has Newt already won the day?
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is planning to direct $20 million to an outside group backing Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign, multiple sources told POLITICO — the first answer to urgent pleas from allies to the former speaker’s longtime billionaire supporters. After leaving Congress, Gingrich cultivated a network of a few dozen über-wealthy backers who poured tens of millions of dollars into a network of groups that helped him maintain a foothold in politics. Now, operatives supporting his presidential campaign are asking those same donors to write fat checks to a suite of new super PACs they hope can spend big on ads to offset Gingrich campaign fundraising that had lagged behind his rivals’.
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography