MANCHESTER, NH - Who needs the NFL Playoffs? The real action tonight is taking place inside Saint Anselm College's Sullivan Arena, where the remaining six Republican presidential candidates will square off in a primetime, blockbuster debate -- roughly 60 hours before the Granite State's primary polls open. The event will take place in the same venue as the state's first GOP debate of the cycle, way back in July -- when the post-game buzz was all about Michele Bachmann's win and Herman Cain's regression. How times have changed. New Hampshire's airwaves are now saturated with political ads, and the surviving campaigns are in full-blown eleventh hour overdrive. While the evening's verbal fisticuffs will fly here in New Hampshire, tonight is really about setting the table for South Carolina. If Romney can run the table in January (a South Carolina win would almost certainly beget a Florida triumph) the race would wrap up early. Many interested parties want to prevent that outcome at almost any cost, and tonight presents a crucial opportunity to bloody up the indisputable, but not yet prohibitive, frontrunner. This dynamic should foster a very feisty exchange. What's at stake for each candidate this evening, and what should voters expect to see? Let's explore:
Mitt Romney has a giant red bullseye painted on his back, the diameter of which might as well stretch from Manchester to Montpelier. He's universally expected to win big in New Hampshire, which establishes the risk of prevailing by an underwhelming margin (in his case, dropping below the high 30s). The Romney camp isn't taking anything for granted and has been working frenetically to meet expectations here. One of Romney's strengths throughout 2011 was his poise in debates and he'll be looking to reprise those performances in 2012. He'd better be prepared for heavy incoming fire. It'll be Mitt vs. The Field tonight, and the former Massachusetts governor won't have debate ally Michele Bachmann around to help break up and mitigate pile-ons, as she did at several seminal moments in recent months. Romney's task will be to stay sharp, keep much of his focus on blasting President Obama, and parrying attacks without getting snippy. His biggest Achilles' heel is allowing a fellow competitor dig under his skin, which has happened on several notable occasions -- including the last debate hosted by ABC News on a Saturday night. The Big Question: Can Romney keep his cool?
Rick Santorum is fresh off a virtual first place tie in Iowa and now hopes to prove that his appeal reaches beyond the Hawkeye State. Tonight offers him an opportunity to mount something of a re-introduction to New Hampshire voters, and he'll likely return to his economic message aimed at blue collar and middle class voters. Santorum's brand of conservatism isn't especially resonant in this northeastern state, but it will play well in South Carolina, so don't expect Santorum to back away from the issues that have animated him throughout his public life. One big change tonight: Santorum will no longer be off in the corner, nipping at debate scraps. He'll garner quite a lot of attention and will stand alongside Romney at center stage. The Big Question: How will be respond with the spotlight burning brighter than ever?
Newt Gingrich is on a mission: Destroy Mitt Romney -- the man whom he holds responsible for his serious fade in state and national polls. Gingrich climbed to the top of the field by playing the Republican peacekeeper, unfailingly training all of his attacks on Democrats and the media. Say goodbye to Mr. Nice Guy; without question, this will be Newt's most strident debate performance to date. Will Newt land some body blows against Romney without coming across as unappealingly vindictive? Striking that balance will be his challenge if, that is, his primary aim is to re-harness the momentum he enjoyed last month. If his overriding focus is simply on taking down Mitt, he becomes a volatile and potentially dangerous wild card. We'll see what strategy Team Romney has fashioned to deal with a galled Gingrich. The Big Question: Will Newt be throwing political roundhouses or grenades? (This clue points to the latter. Hoo boy).
Jon Huntsman's path to the nomination is exceedingly narrow, if it exists at all. In order to thread that improbable needle, the former Utah Governor will need to make a massive splash New Hampshire, where he's committed virtually all of his time and resources. One new poll shows Huntsman pulling into a (distant) second place in the state, so the candidate may try to build a narrative of momentum heading into Tuesday. Huntsman has been a non-factor in most of the debates so far. He needs to approach this tilt with a major sense of urgency. The Big Question: Will Huntsman pander heavily to New Hampshire voters' independent streak, or will he try to highlight his (considerable) conservative bona fides, as he's moved to do in recent weeks? The campaign has toggled between these two approaches since day one, and neither one has really struck pay-dirt.
Rick Perry is still here. After his head-fake non-drop out concession speech in Iowa, this wasn't a foregone conclusion by any means. Based on the Texas Governor's strong Townhall Op-Ed yesterday, it appears that he's ready to get back down to basics. His job creation record in the Lone Star State is exceptional. If Americans want jobs, he believes he's the guy to spearhead that push. One data point: If American overall job growth had tracked with Texas' since 2009, the national unemployment rate would stand at roughly 5 percent. That's a compelling narrative -- one that Perry has struggled to effectively articulate in such a way that it's broken through with voters. Perry's poll numbers are staggeringly bad (seriously, click that link) in New Hampshire, so tonight is all about positioning himself for the Palmetto State primary on January 21st. The Big Question: Will Perry join the Romney pig-pile tonight, or does he need to punch at Rick Santorum, the Not Romney he seeks to supplant?
Ron Paul's supporters have hung placards and banners on almost every highway overpass I drove under on my journey to Manchester. They're committed and passionate. The man they support will get more airtime now that the stage is a little bit less crowded, so his ideas will get plenty of play. The Big Question: Can Paul hold off Santorum and Huntsman and land a second place finish here? It's definitely attainable.
Everyone on stage not named 'Mitt Romney' is praying for a game changer tonight. Will one materialize? It's also worth mentioning that New Hampshire voters love shaking up races. In 2008, they pushed Hillary Clinton over the top, blunting Barack Obama's seemingly unstoppable momentum coming out of Iowa, and setting up a bruising six month clash over the Democratic nomination. Granite Staters also handed John McCain a desperately needed win here, re-calibrating the Republican race permanently. In 2012, time is running short and tempers are running high. Buckle up for the big event tonight. It promises to be must-see TV. Game time is 9 pm Eastern, and the debate airs on ABC News. As usual, we'll have running coverage here on the Tipsheet -- featuring the Townhall/HotAir editorial team's live tweets -- and I'll post a comprehensive recap and analysis shortly after the program concludes.