The GOP presidential candidates meet tonight for the first of two pivotal debates ahead of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, as a surging Newt Gingrich leads the field and Mitt Romney goes on the attack.
In a campaign where the debates have recalibrated the race, tonight's forum in Des Moines and one Thursday in Sioux City have the potential to be important slugfests as candidates make their case to caucusgoers who'll cast the first votes for a Republican nominee.
The debate airs 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET on ABC News. Yahoo!, the Des Moines Register and ABC's Iowa affiliate WOI-TV are also co-sponsoring the event with the Iowa GOP.
Instead of the usual eight Republicans, there will only be six candidates onstage at Drake University. Herman Cain suspended his campaign last week and Jon Huntsman did not qualify because of his low standing in the polls.
We'll be live blogging later in OnPolitics. Here's our preview of five things to watch:
Can Newt Gingrich keep his cool?
The former House speaker is the prey and there isn't a rival who won't be stalking him. Already, Ron Paul is running a scathing ad charging Gingrich with "serial hypocrisy." Rick Perry is linking Gingrich (and Romney) to Obama on health care mandates.
Then there's a newly aggressive Mitt Romney, who has spent much of the year as the presumptive front-runner, only to watch people try to coalesce behind an alternative.
Stumbles by his GOP rivals and strong debate performances have helped fueled Gingrich's rise. He's bashed the news media and challenged the premise of questions, which plays well with conservatives. And while he's known to be mercurial, Gingrich has displayed a level of discipline that he himself admits was sometimes missing when he served in Congress.
"Gingrich is trying to ... cast in the minds of the viewing public the idea that he is the ideal debater to go up against President Obama," says Ben Voth, chairman of the communications studies division and director of debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
How hard will Mitt Romney swing?
Romney has vowed he won't be quiet when it comes to making distinctions with Gingrich. His surrogates and aides have sought to portray Gingrich as an unreliable and untrustworthy conservative, but so far Romney himself hasn't been as pointed in his criticism. That might change tonight.
"Romney is campaiging like a team preparing for the Super Bowl without realizing they have to get through the playoffs," says Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University. "He's focused on Obama but he has to pay attention to getting the nomination."
There's a danger, though, of being too feisty. A GOP debate in Las Vegas was marked by some highly personal sparring between Romney and Perry over illegal immigration, including one point where Romney put his hand on the Texas governor's shoulder.
"There are lots of ways to be a distinctive debater," says Voth. "It's negative to touch the other person."
Does Ron Paul make his move?
The Texas congressman told CNN in October that going on the attack in a debate is "my least favorite thing to do," but he'll do it if pressed or if someone challenges his supporters.
Paul's uneasiness about getting in someone's face doesn't seem to affect his TV ads. The "serial hypocrisy" commercial in which he goes after Gingrich for being a Washington insider and for his past positions on key issues is just one example.
A strong impression in the next two debates could be good timing for Paul, who is in double digits in Iowa and New Hampshire polls behind Gingrich and Romney. Paul has been steadily climbing while much of the focus has been on what he calls the "flavors of the month."
He's also been quietly building an organization that could be a critical factor in Iowa. More than three-quarters of likely GOP caucusgoers in a CBS/New York Times poll this week say they've been contacted by the Ron Paul campaign -- the highest for any of the candidates.
Can Rick Perry recover?
By now, it's no secret that debates aren't Rick Perry's strength.
But Perry had more than $15 million in the bank at the end of September, and he's spending a lot of that cash right now to blanket the airwaves in Iowa. His ad challenging what he calls "Obama's war on religion" has been one of the most talked-about this season and reportedly divided his campaign staff.
With religious conservatives consistently making up a large bloc of caucus voters every four years, can Perry also use the next two debates to appeal to them?
"Perry is looking for a second chance to make a first impression and that's tough," Goldford says.
Will Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum stir things up?
Bachmann and Santorum have a lot of stake in the final debates of the year and in Iowa, but it's not clear they can make up lost ground.
Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, was born in Iowa and won the straw poll in August. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, has spent a lot of time campaigning in Iowa and has visited each of the state's 99 counties. They are near the bottom of the Iowa polls, besting only Huntsman at this stage.
Craig Smith, director of the Center for First Amendment Studies at California State University-Long Beach, contends the candidates who aren't high in polling serve an important function in the debates.
"The lesser candidates play the role of attack dog," says Smith, a former speechwriter for President Gerald Ford.
But in the end, if Bachmann and Santorum help pile on Gingrich it may not be enough. Goldford notes that if Bachmann and Santorum doubled their current support in Iowa polls, they still would be lagging Gingrich.
By Catalina Camia, USA TODAY