Saturday's GOP Debate: It's Going to Get Nasty

Newt Gingrich has huge leads nationally and in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. He’s creeping up on Romney in New Hampshire. There is only one more debate featuring all the candidates left before the January 3 caucus in Iowa, a mere three weeks away. This means that Saturday is do-or-die for every other candidate. They must all bring down Gingrich, and they won’t do it gently.

Look at Gingrich’s poll numbers to get an idea of the task ahead for his rivals. The RealClearPolitics poll averages show him ahead by about 12 points nationally, 12 points in Iowa,  21 points in South Carolina, and the latest poll out of Florida has him 13 points ahead of Romney. In New Hampshire, Romney is ahead by an average of 12 points, but the momentum from a Gingrich victory in Iowa could make it close.

That means his rivals need Gingrich to suffer a double-digit reduction in support over three weeks, especially those that are dependent upon performing well in Iowa. This will be hard, but not impossible. Polls show that about 55% of likely voters in Iowa and South Carolina, 48% in New Hampshire, and 53% in Florida are willing to change their minds. This suggests that tonight’s debate is going to be very rough on Gingrich.

Gingrich says he won’t be an “attack dog” against the others and this is a wise strategy. He got this far by minimizing his scuffles with rivals. The criticisms of Romney are already well-known and bringing them up won’t do any good. His main weakness -- and Romney’s biggest strength -- is electability. If Gingrich mounts a swift and persuasive defense against the charges brought against him tonight, primary voters will become more confident that he can take on Obama. It will also arm Republicans with rebuttals to the future attacks he will face if he is the nominee. His goal tonight is to appear like a winning general election candidate.

Mitt Romney is going on the offensive against Gingrich. He is describing him as a Washington “insider,” hoping to leverage anti-establishment sentiment in his favor. Romney will criticize him on immigration and his leadership as speaker of the House to depict him as an ineffective and unstable leader. Romney will make the case that Gingrich is a visionary, but is unprepared to implement that vision. He’ll also emphasize his strong family relationships in order to bring attention to Gingrich’s personal baggage.

Romney’s campaign is going after Gingrich personally, but it is questionable whether Romney will do that on stage and risk it backfiring on him. In a conference call this week, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu and former Missouri Senator James Talent harshly criticized Gingrich. They called him “irrational,” inconsistent, and self-absorbed. It will be hard for Romney to artfully do this himself tonight, so he may continue to rely on surrogates. If his campaign can make voters feel like Gingrich is pompous and condescending, Romney may be able to turn Gingrich’s intelligence into a liability.