TAMPA--Less than a week after Mitt Romney and Rick Perry squared off for the first time in a presidential debate, the two GOP frontrunners return to the stage here tonight in Florida for Round Two. As we said last week, Perry's comments on Social Security ("Ponzi scheme") and his refusal to back down have guaranteed it will be a major issue in the campaign--and certainly in this debate.
Here are five things to watch tonight:
1. Romney vs. Perry. In one corner is Mr. Establishment, your 1950s dad who's kind of boring and always wants to follow the rules. In the other is the Anti-Establishment hell-raiser, your 1970s uncle who likes a good brawl and doesn't bother with rulebooks. These two guys couldn't be more different--in tone, style and approach--and we saw that clearly last week, even in how they talked to each other. (Perry called Romney "Mitt," while Romney more politely called his nemesis "Governor.") After their clash at the Reagan Library on Social Security, though, Romney hasn't let up. In fact, just this afternoon, his campaign pointed out several of Perry's comments about the program and how it should be handled not by the federal government, but by the states. And the subject line? "Rick's Latest Retreat on Social Security."
2. Will Perry give some specifics on how to replace Social Security? All the Perry-bashing in the past few days by his opponents is basically like giving the enemy your battle plan. Perry isn't walking into an ambush here. He knows he has to offer an alternative, and he started outlining one in a USA Today column this morning. He is a tough competitor, and people have underestimated him over the years at their peril. So look for him to be ready to fight back--and look for Republican primary voters to like it.
3. Fireworks are legal in Florida, figuratively at least. So expect to see a few tonight, especially from the so-called second-tier candidates who are struggling to stay in this thing and not be forever relegated to second-tier status. That means this debate could get nasty, not only because of the exchanges between Romney and Perry (see #1), but because Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum could set off some sparks--and perhaps Michele Bachmann, which leads us to...
4. Will Michele Bachmann get air time? After being sent off to the sidelines in last week's debate and largely overlooked by moderators (National Review's Kathryn Lopez asked: "hey guys, where's the girl?"), Bachmann must perform well tonight and get back in the conversation. And yes, I did just type that she must "get back in the conversation" about a candidate who just three weeks ago WON the Iowa straw poll. What a difference a Texas governor can make in Republican presidential politics. Or how irrelevant the Iowa Straw Poll is. Or both.
5. And finally, will Newt Gingrich finally restore his image within the Republican Party? After being roundly criticized by Republicans for bashing Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to reform Medicare and having that unfortunate Tiffany & Co. bill made public, Gingrich now appears to be on a mission to get his GOP Card back in good standing. Last week, he went after the moderators for "encouraging" Republican candidates to attack one another and reminding America that Barack Obama is the real opponent. What will Newt try tonight in a debate co-sponsored by the Tea Party, which surely will have a different tone? (Which, incidentally, we hope means no questions on how a Republican candidate feels about capital punishment--an actual question last week. Hint: Like most Republicans, they support it.)