Republican debate: Three keys to watch

Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate, Jan. 16, 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
AP Photo/David Goldman
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate, Jan. 16, 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Former Mass. gov. Mitt Romney will want to make up ground lost recently to Newt Gingrich
AP Photo/David Goldman

Republicans gather for the 18th debate of the nominating battle tonight in Tampa, Florida. Below, three key questions about tonight's sure-to-be-nasty faceoff, which airs tonight from 9-11 p.m. Eastern Time ahead of the Sunshine State's January 31 primary:

1. Can Mitt Romney create a YouTube moment? Exit polls showed that Newt Gingrich's victory in the South Carolina primary was driven in large part by voters won over by his performance in two debates last week. Gingrich had twomemorable momentsin the debates - both involving sparring with the debate moderators - that went viral among conservatives and earned him standing ovations. 

Even when he was earning rave reviews in the early debates, Romney wasn't creating those kinds of moments - the ones that the voters who don't actually watch the full debate end up seeing via blogs and social media. If he can find a way to create one tonight, he could potentially both stop Gingrich's post-South Carolina momentum and rebut Gingrich's claims that only Gingrich has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with President Obama on the debate stage.

If Romney wants to regain his clear frontrunner status, Romney needs to do more than just get through tonight's debate without screwing up - he needs to create a water cooler moment that helps puts to rest GOP voters' lingering doubts about his toughness and ideological purity. Romney's best bet may be to take a page from Gingrich and attack the media - though Gingrich has so aggressively cornered the market on such attacks that Romney runs the risk of looking desperate in following suit.

2.Can Gingrich weather the onslaught?: Romney has gone after Gingrich aggressively in the wake of the South Carolina primary, calling his rival a "failed leader" and influence-peddling lobbyist who has not come clean about his highly-paid role in advocating on behalf of Freddie Mac. Romney also called Gingrich "highly erratic" and unlikely to set "a stable, thoughtful course" for the country. His campaign has all but stated that the gloves have come off in the wake of Gingrich's South Carolina victory, and tonight is Romney's first chance to take the fight to his rival directly. 

Gingrich plans to undermine Romney's attacks to some degree by having The Gingrich Group release Gingrich's Freddie Mac contracts before the debate. But that doesn't mean he won't face aggressive criticism from rivals who point to the hypocrisy of Gingrich's casting himself as an anti-elite Washington outsider after his lucrative second career as a Washington power broker.Not to mention Gingrich's ties to Freddie Mac, a particular interest in Florida, which was hard-hit by the housing crisis. How well Gingrich handles the attacks will go a long way toward dictating whether he can build on his surge in national polls, which now show him even with Romney. In addition to his Freddie Mac payout, expect Romney and the other contenders to attack Gingrich for his ethics censure in the House, his supposedly "erratic" history, and, perhaps, what Rick Santorum has called Gingrich's tendency to make "grandiose" claims about his place in history.

3.Can Ron Paul and Rick Santorum make a splash? Ron Paul isn't seriously contesting Florida, an expensive state with a winner-take-all delegate allocation that doesn't square with his delegate-focused strategy. But his campaign is partially a quest to win converts to his Libertarian movement, and the debate stage is a prime opportunity to do so. Paul is not a natural debater, and he has struggled in recent debates to articulate his beliefs as clearly as he does in his books and campaign literature. His goal Monday night will be to clearly and forcefully make his case in a way that prompts Republicans who are skeptical of his isolationist, get-the-government-out-of-my-life views - and polls show there are a lot of them - to start nodding their heads in agreement.

For Santorum, the challenge is to find a way to keep Gingrich from solidifying his claim to be the consensus conservative alternative to Romney - a tough task in the wake of Gingrich's double-digit victory in deeply conservative South Carolina. Santorum also needs to figure out how to convince GOP voters that he could actually beat President Obama, having deemed skepticism about his ability to do so a "self-fulfilling prophecy." Santorum is an underrated debater, and you can count on him to score some body blows on his rivals; his best hope at this point, however, is for one of the leading candidates to flame out, leaving him as the only non-Paul alternative left standing.

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