MANCHESTER, N.H. - A frontrunner looks to cement his status, a surging challenger is poised to give him a run, and a couple of former frontrunners are desperate to get back in. Here are five things to watch in what's shaping up to be the Melee in Manchester.
1. Will Romney lose an eye? Not to go all Biblical here, but Newt Gingrich has signaled all week that he's out for revenge and plans to exact it from Mitt Romney. Gingrich blames Romney for his precipitous decline in the polls, saying a slew of negative ads brought him down only weeks after he was confidently predicting he would be the Republican nominee.
There are a few problems with Gingrich's narrative: He's ignoring the fact that Ron Paul's attack ads against him were in many ways more effective than Romney's. Moreover, Romney and Paul weren't blanketing the airwaves in New Hampshire and South Carolina - the ads ran in Iowa - and yet Gingrich plummeted in the polls in those states, too. That suggests it was Gingrich who hurt himself in the rest of the country. He repeatedly whined about the ads in countless interviews and speeches, and he came across as an angry Washington politician. But why let the facts get in his way? Gingrich appears to be a man on a mission - or, as Chris Wallace told Sean Hannity, he's going to strap on the hockey mask and fire up the chain saw.
2. If Gingrich goes all "Friday the 13th," will it backfire? If he's going eye-for-eye with Romney, he shouldn't forget the old saying: Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. Gingrich shot up in the polls after impressive debate performances. His best applause lines came when he chastised debate moderators and the liberal media for trying to encourage the Republicans to fight. He defended his competitors, saying they all would be better than Barack Obama. He espoused big ideas and sounded smart, and Republican voters responded. They want bold ideas, they want positive messages, and above all, they don't want to see Republicans attacking Republicans. The main goal of the Republican primary voter is to beat President Obama. That's the one thing that unites every Republican, and the candidate who delivers the best attack on President Obama and on Washington wins.
Somewhere along the way, Gingrich forgot that. His performances this week suggest he won't remember it by tonight, either -- and that could hurt him as much (or more) than it hurts Romney, especially if Romney stays positive and deflects the blows by focusing on his ideas and on hammering President Obama.
3. How will Rick Santorum attack Romney? Coming off his big win in Iowa (and it was a win even if he did lose by eight votes), Santorum will be standing center stage next to the frontrunner. No longer is he stuck on the end, trying to elbow his way into the conversation. He has an opportunity to solidify his new status as the anti-Romney candidate and build momentum for South Carolina and beyond.
In many ways, this debate is more about South Carolina than New Hampshire, and Santorum has an opportunity to contrast himself with Romney and make the case to voters that he is the best candidate to beat Obama. In previous debates, Santorum has shown he can effectively throw a punch on a wide range of issues, from Iran to immigration. When Tim Pawlenty pulled his punches with Romney on "Obamneycare" (which led to the implosion of his campaign), Santorum jumped in and started pounding. The challenge for Santorum is how he throws the punch.
As we said, Gingrich's downfall came after he was seen as an angry politician. Santorum has to give a more hopeful message, as he did in his victory speech in Iowa. Will he come across as negative, or will he make it a contrast between Romney's views and record and his own, more solidly conservative ideas? That's a subtle, but critical, distinction.
4. How will Romney respond? So far, Romney has weathered the attacks by staying positive and keeping his focus on President Obama. In speeches and rallies, he doesn't mention his opponents by name, and instead delivers an anti-Obama message more focused on the general election. That's worked well for him, and he's likely to continue to deflect the attacks by stressing what he sees as his strengths: Creating jobs and rebuilding the economy.
He may throw a few counterpunches at "career politicians," but will he hit harder? I doubt it. His best strategy is to rise above it, be the referee who protects the other candidates from the media elite that Republican voters instinctively distrust and dislike. It was Gingrich's old role, and it could get Romney a lot of support (as it did for Gingrich).
5. Will the anti-Romneys attack Santorum? The fight now is for second place, to be the alternative to Romney. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich have to slow Santorum's momentum and raise questions with voters over his qualifications and electability. Gingrich already has been dismissive, calling him a "junior partner." It's trickier for Perry. He's the kind of candidate who should do well in South Carolina, and he's lined up some impressive endorsements there. But he's stumbled in debates, and he has to do something in this one to show he belongs in the top tier. He can't do that with attacks, because people won't listen.
Perry has to first reestablish his credibility on the issues. But Santorum may try to head that effort off. If he can knock Perry out, he will pick up Perry's voters and continue building a conservative coalition to challenge Romney in South Carolina and beyond.