Tonight’s Debate: The Big One?

Tonight’s debate is the last one featuring all the candidates before the January 3 Iowa caucus, unless the Newsmax debate happens and Trump’s absence leads to commitments from all who declined. It is obvious that there will be fireworks between Gingrich, Romney, and Paul, but the real show might be put on by Santorum, Bachmann, and Perry. It is probable that only one of them can survive Iowa by coming in third or fourth, making this debate a do-or-die moment for all three.

Newt Gingrich is doubling-down on remaining positive, though he has taken a few retaliatory shots at Romney lately. He says it is “critical” that the nominee not be damaged by the primary process, and he’ll employ that line if the heat gets too strong. By staying positive, Gingrich has a higher likelihood of being the second choice of his competitors’ supporters. He must hope that the lower-tier candidates beat each other up so that none can take his support as his conservative credentials are questioned.

Gingrich should expect the same attacks as during the last debate, except in higher volume.  There are videos of him calling himself a “Wilsonian” and praising FDR as the “greatest political leader of the 20th century” and “greatest president of the 20th century” going around the Internet. There are few things worse for a Republican candidate to do in a primary than to exalt a Democratic president above Ronald Reagan. It’ll be shocking if his rivals don’t make full use of it.

Mitt Romney faces a dilemma tonight. On the one hand, he has to have Gingrich come down a few pegs. The latest InsiderAdvantage poll has Gingrich only five points behind him in New Hampshire. A victory in Iowa could give him enough momentum to carry the state, or at least make it close enough that it stops Romney from getting a bounce.

He’s been going after Gingrich for his infamous “right-wing social engineering” comment and for being an “extremely unreliable” conservative. His campaign has written a memo about “Newt Nancy,” referring to his ad with Pelosi about global warming. He is challenging Gingrich to return the money he received from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to which Gingrich responded by challenging him to return the money he made from laying off workers and filing companies for bankruptcy. Ironically, Romney is accusing Gingrich of being a major flip-flopper, but he probably won’t set himself up for a monster counterpunch by using that line in the debate.

It’s hard to tell if the attacks are working. One poll shows Romney closing the gap nationally with Gingrich to six points. Another has Gingrich with his widest lead yet, 40 to 23. InsiderAdvantage has Romney falling to fourth in Iowa, one point behind Perry and only two ahead of Bachmann. Pollster Matt Towery says his campaign in the state is “imploding” because of the negativity, calling it “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen a campaign do.”

If Romney’s camp shares Towery’s observations, he’ll switch tactics tonight. He’ll focus almost exclusively on electability, and most of his attacks will be related to Gingrich’s “erratic outspokenness” which could help Obama in a general election. He can let the others attack Gingrich. He can also point to the polls. There is not a single battleground state where Gingrich performs better than Romney against Obama. Rasmussen’s last poll found that Gingrich has lost 5 points in a potential matchup with Obama in just one week. The RealClearPolitics average has Romney doing about 7 points better in a general election.