Naughty or Nice?: Newt Gingrich has surged to the top of the polls, both in Iowa and across the country. So, what does that mean for the debate tonight at Drake University in Des Moines? Candidates are running out of time to score some points with voters with the Iowa Caucuses just 24 nights away. They have tonight and one more debate in Sioux City before the caucuses on January 3rd. Then, of course, there's whatever you want to call the event with Donald Trump at Des Moines' Hoyt Sherman Place on December 27th. But only Gingrich and Rick Santorum have RSVP'd for that one.
What to expect tonight?
Newt Gingrich--Gingrich has to stay above it all. He said again today he's not going to get into the negative attacks like rivals do. He even said he'd come after a pro-Gingrich SuperPAC if it would go negative. So Gingrich can't lose his cool and get feisty tonight (although, isn't that what some of his supporters want?)
Mitt Romney--Romney has tried to act like he isn't going hard in Iowa. He's largely stayed away while his team has quietly tried to re-connect with supporters from his first run 4 years ago, along with connecting with Independents and business-minded moderate Republicans. But Romney's adding visits and surrogate stops as he's dropped in the polls and Gingrich has soared. Romney's surrogates are coming hard after Gingrich right now, ripping on him at every chance. Does Romney need to do that, too, tonight, or risk getting elbowed out of the top 3 finishers on caucus night.
Ron Paul--I'm very curious how Paul handles Gingrich tonight. He's running really critical ads on Iowa tv's right now. Will he continue it in person? I covered Paul at Principal Financial in Des Moines earlier this week. He said nothing of Gingrich during his remarks before Principal employees. But afterwards, as he walked off, he told Radio Iowa's Kay Henderson, “Who’s that? Who is that? Oh, that guy who used to be the speaker? I have to expose him for what he’s been doing all these years. That’s all we’re doing, trying to present the facts.” So will Paul bring it tonight?
Rick Santorum--He says he's having a "boomlet" right now...with very slow progress in the polls. He's laid the groundwork for what could be his surge, or at least mini-surge, on caucus night. But so far, the polls show little evidence of that. Santorum earned an endorsement last night from Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, the first state office-holder to endorse. Schultz backed fellow Mormon, Mitt Romney, last time. Santorum has to start making a name for himself on the national stage. Tonight would offer that chance. But how does he come out hard without looking desperate? And will moderators give him much of a chance to have that opportunity?
Michele Bachmann--Bachmann bailed on an interview with our reporter today and skipped a veterans' forum. So it would seem the debate is getting her every attention. Bachmann has to find a way to do something no one has done this race...get a "re-surge". She had things going for her winning the Republican Party of Iowa's Straw Poll in Ames in August. But she has done very little retail campaigning in Iowa lately. How can she find a way to stand out tonight? Will she, too, come after Gingrich as the ultimate Washington insider? Or does she stick with her "I'm a mom" theme she uses often here, along with continuing to connect with the Evangelicals at a time social issues don't get the same play they did 4 years ago?
Rick Perry--Another tough memory loss for him after he had talked of a campaign "restart" just days ago. Perry's latest lapse during his editorial board meeting with the Des Moines Register Friday threatens to stick in people's minds, reminding them of his previous debate issues. What does he do tonight? Does he keep going after the sympathetic with his self-deprecating humor about his lapses (taking the risk he becomes politics version of the Chicago Cubs lovable loser)? Or does he have no choice but to come after Gingrich repeating his anti-Washington rhetoric, hoping Iowans haven't given up on him?
No matter who does it, though, I'd expect Gingrich to get a taste of what life is like as the front runner, don't you? The question is who wants to go after him and how much.