Candidates seeking the Republican Party nomination for the 2012 presidential election have a chance at a debate tonight to find differences, however subtle, to separate themselves from the pack.

The debate is sponsored by the New Hampshire Union Leader, CNN and WMUR and runs tonight from 8 to 10 p.m. at St. Anselm College’s Sullivan Arena.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are scheduled to participate.

Deborah Jordan Brooks, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, said early debates rarely result in focused attacks, as candidates usually try to stay on message and not run the risk of alienating themselves from voters.

“You will generally tend to see candidates in front of the pack such as Romney focusing on promoting positive messages and probably also on attacking President Obama, rather than on attacking the other primary contenders,” she said. “But the fun of primary debates, especially early on, is that they are not predictable. And this Republican primary, in particular, does not lend itself to easy predictions.”

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