MANCHESTER, N.H.--With the first major Republican debate only hours away, the candidates have wrapped up their strategy sessions and are getting ready to take stage. At this point in the campaign, tonight is a chance for them to introduce themselves to voters--perhaps with a good one-liner--and try to avoid any missteps that will get replayed over and over.
But there are a few other things brewing under the surface that we could see tonight. So while we all wait for things to get started, here are the Top Five few things to be on the lookout for late on.
1. Will tonight's debate be like King of the Hill--that playground game you played in elementary school? With Mitt Romney firmly established as the presumptive frontrunner, the non-Romneys are going to have to start charging up the hill at some point to try to push him off. So far they're not running at him at full speed. If they don't make an effort tonight, Romney will be able to stay focused on taking shots at President Obama--and not get into a shoving match with the others. But there are some signals it could go the other way, which leads us to....
2. Will former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty be the first to charge up the hill? He gave Romney a little shove yesterday--and even went so far as to make up a new word, "Obamneycare," or something like that. Pawlenty's making the point that Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts paved the way for President Obama's. But will Pawlenty keep it up tonight? Or is he just going to talk trash in the cafeteria behind Romney's back and not slug it out on the playground?
3. Will Newt Gingrich be relegated to the kids' table? After calling the Republican plan to reform Medicare "right-wing social engineering," and then seeing his entire staff quit after he went off to the Greek Isles, Gingrich has become like that guest you invited to dinner--then realized you really wish he wasn't coming. Will he redeem himself with sparkling conversation (and manage to keep his campaign limping along) or will he be sent off to sit somewhere else?
4. Will Rick Santorum go after Michele Bachmann to stake a claim as the favorite of social conservatives? Or will he focus on Romney--much like Sam Brownback did in the 2008 election, when he ignored Mike Huckabee in the debates...at his peril? And speaking of Bachmann, will she play to the Tea Party or seek to expand her base (and further distinguish herself from Sarah Palin), with talk about economic theory (see Saturday's Wall Street Journal).
5. And finally, will Herman Cain wow people like he did in South Carolina, now that the stage is a little more crowded? Cain stood out in the last debate with his talk of competence and common sense. What kind of impact will he have tonight?