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Debate Weekend: The Nasty Newt Show

Rick Santorum finds himself in a nice spot. He has risen to second place nationally, 8 points behind Romney. The polls show him leading a tight race for third in New Hampshire, which would solidify his position as the alternative to Romney. In South Carolina, he is now in second place, only three points behind Romney. In these debates, he can count on Gingrich to tear into Romney, while he can stay above the fray and benefit from any backlash against Gingrich.

Santorum’s lines of attack against Romney haven’t changed much. He’s still hammering away at his flip-flops and his health care plan, which indirectly injures Gingrich because he supported the individual health care mandate in the past. One noticeable change is that Santorum is sounding more like a policy wonk, giving more detailed answers with historical references. This is probably a way of appealing to Gingrich’s supporters.

Ron Paul has made Rick Santorum his number one target. His latest ad calls him a “serial hypocrite” like Gingrich and directly accuses him of corruption. It mentions his relationship with lobbyists and highlights a quote where he said he is “no longer a deficit hawk.” Paul recently insulted Gingrich as a “chickenhawk” who avoided serving in Vietnam. These are the sort of things Paul will mention tonight and tomorrow morning.

Rick Perry is likewise focusing on Santorum. His campaign put out an ad  about his support for earmarks and Perry calls him a “serial pork barrel earmarker.” Perry is the one that most emphasizes Santorum’s landslide loss in 2006, saying: “This guy has proven that he can’t win races when it matters against a liberal Democrat.” Perry is in the single digits in South Carolina and will need to make a splash to justify the continuance of his campaign after finishing fifth in Iowa.

Jon Huntsman’s main target will be Romney as they both are competing for the moderate voters in New Hampshire. He has put all of his eggs in one basket in the state, so Huntsman will be more aggressive than ever. Huntsman says Romney will be a “status quo president” and is trying to penalize him for his wealth. He is challenging him to release his tax returns. He may not admit it, but it sure seems like Huntsman is trying to win independents by capitalizing on the anti-Wall Street sentiment of the “Occupy” movement.

There are two major struggles that will play out this weekend. The first is Romney against everyone, with Gingrich leading the way. The second is Santorum against Gingrich, Paul, and Perry. Expect the helmets and gloves to be dropped.