Volatility In GOP Race Could Lead To Debate Fireworks

With lingering frustration over the Republican presidential front-runners among the party's base and with Fred Thompson moving closer to entering the field, tonight's GOP presidential debate comes at a time of considerable volatility for the Republican ticket.

As front-runner Rudy Giuliani attempts to protect his lead in national polls, Sen. John McCain tries to shore up sagging support, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks to introduce himself to many voters for the first time, that volatility may make for some fireworks during the debate, the first of the '08 cycle for the Republicans.

Flare-ups may be even more likely because a host of second-tier candidates, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, and California Rep. Duncan Hunter, will be looking to attack the front-runners as being insufficiently conservative.

Ten candidates will participate in the debate. The stage is the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and each of the front-runners will be working to stake his claim as the heir to Reagan's legacy.

"Reagan was a considerable influence on his life and public service career," says McCain spokesman Danny Diaz of the Arizona senator. "As someone who is a conservative and a westerner, and someone who believes in limited government, he has the track record to lead this country."

In what is likely to be something of a departure from last week's Democratic presidential debate, the Republican front-runners will be showcasing their individual records in arguing that they are best qualified to lead the country. Ex-New York City Mayor Giuliani will highlight his post-9/11 leadership but also draw attention to his efforts to lower crime and taxes before the September 11 attacks. McCain will emphasize his military service and his tenure on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Romney will act similarly.

"If people want to know about the governor, they'll look at his job as governor of Massachusetts, his success in business, and his leadership in turning around the Olympics," says Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.

The candidates may also be making specific appeals to California voters around issues that have not traditionally been close to the hearts of Republican primary voters but that matter in the Golden State, such as the environment. California has moved its primary up to early February, very likely increasing its influence in picking the presidential nominees. And with popular early- and absentee-voting programs, California may see more voters casting ballots before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus than in the Iowa caucuses themselves.

The debate will be carried live by MSNBC and on politico.com.

By Dan Gilgoff