This morning we will have the GOP debate from Iowa. The actual amount of speaking time each candidate gets is small so the opportunity for a mistake usually outweighs the chance a candidate can significantly improve his position. As one of the GOP candidate's advisors put it, "The challenge of these debates is always the same: nine people on stage with only 90 minutes of time between them." Just days before the Ames Straw poll, the stakes seem highest for the three biggest names who are competing there -- Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback. Romney needs a solid performance, one that sets him apart from his other Ames challengers and raises no doubts with the social conservatives he has so assiduously courted. According to spokesman Kevin Madden, Romney will attempt to appeal to "all the platforms that are important to the Republican Party. . . [and] talk about the need for a strong military, a strong economy and strong families." His major competition has disappeared from the Ames straw poll, and if Huckabee or Brownback is going to break through now is do or die for them to make it out of the second tier. (Considering how nasty these two campaigns have been this week --challenging an opponent's "Christian character" is rather extraordinary -- watch for some verbal fireworks.) For John McCain the task is to remain relevant and remind voters of his major selling point, expertise on national security. A McCain aide explained that he wants to "show once again why he is the only candidate ready to serve as Commander and Chief from day one." As for Rudy Giuliani, the goal --as it is for any frontrunner in a debate -- is to reassure voters he deserves his first place standing and avoid serious gaffes. And Fred Thompson? If the debate descends into a verbal food fight, he benefits; if one or more candidates looks like a credible nominee (or has a memorable media moment equivalent to Rudy's bashing of Ron Paul), voters will begin to wonder what he would add to the mix.
One last thought: with the recent Obama-Hillary rhetorical battles and Hillary's success in pulling away from her rivals in the national polls, nervous Republican primary voters will be considering not just who looks good this morning against his GOP opponents but who is going to look good against Hillary.