Public opinion polls show Romney’s lead holding steady at above 40 percent, with Ron Paul at about half that number, and Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman bunched in a third tier. Those numbers suggest a spirited fight for second place, with the likelihood that the guy who finishes last may be finished. So what does each man have to do in the debates?
Newt Gingrich: The former House speaker was riding high in the Iowa polls until a barrage of negative ads aired by pro-Romney forces brought him down to earth. Gingrich was embittered by it, and said so. He has signaled that he will go directly after Romney in the debates. Complaints about super PACs aren’t likely to galvanize New Hampshire Republicans, however. What would help Gingrich is the same thing that helped him earlier in the cycle: Perform so well in this format that Republican voters start spontaneously fantasizing about Gingrich talking circles around President Obama in general election debates next autumn.
Rick Santorum: Earlier in the process, Santorum was often shunted off to the side — “stage right” it’s called — and was given short shrift by debate moderators. That’s less likely to happen this weekend, which is the good news. The bad news is that some of the answers Santorum has been giving in town-hall meetings seem stark in a debate format.
Santorum’s task is to keep inspiring social conservatives who admire his faith and principles without sounding extreme.
Ron Paul: This is also Ron Paul’s task, although his views are diametrically opposed to Santorum’s on foreign policy and social issues. Paul’s non-interventionist stance and libertarianism on domestic policy are anathema to most Republicans. But he remains in second place in New Hampshire, and has saturated the airwaves with hard-hitting and effective ads. Given the YouTube video, Paul would be well-served to express racial tolerance, and perhaps make a direct overture to Huntsman.
Mitt Romney: His job is to not fall down. He’s a known commodity in this state, and should win, barring an unexpected gaffe.
“Imagine him debating Obama,” Gingrich said contemptuously of Romney on Friday. “Obama’s going to laugh at him.” That seems unlikely, and it’s unlikelier still that New Hampshire residents will laugh at Romney, who is so confident of his chances here, he spent a couple of days this week in South Carolina.
Rick Perry: The Texas governor started out at the top of the polls, and descended — largely on the basis of his weak debate performance — to the point where he’s not really campaigning in New Hampshire. Obviously, Perry cannot have another “oops” moment or forget a Cabinet-level department he wants to abolish.
His audience Saturday night and Sunday morning will be Republican voters in South Carolina, the site of the next primary and the place he is headed Sunday as soon as the debate ends.