DES MOINES, IOWA - The Republican presidential primary is entering a new phase. Thursday night's debate in Iowa and the straw poll on Saturday in Ames will draw a new level of national attention, and will shape how the race plays out into the fall.
Here are a few things to watch in the debate, which begins at 9 p.m. ET.
1. Who goes after Michele Bachmann, and how?
Bachmann has become the frontrunner in Iowa: she has been leading in polls of Hawkeye State voters and she is expected to win the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday. Being the Iowa frontrunner is not the same as being the overall frontrunner -- there are questions about the state's relevance because of the way Iowa conservatives have propelled candidates who are so conservative that they are considered unelectable. But it still goes first in the primary process, and so anyone who wins the Iowa caucuses has to be taken seriously next winter. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been attacking Bachmann relentlessly for the last few weeks. He would have to win Iowa next winter to have any chance of winning the party's nomination, and there are questions about whether he can sustain a campaign through the rest of this year if he does not finish first or a close second in Ames on Saturday.
But it will be interesting to watch who else on the stage joins Pawlenty in criticizing Bachmann. Certainly other candidates who are equally conservative but less flashy -- former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and maybe former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) -- will have some incentive to do so. But the two other more mainstream hopefuls -- former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. Ambassador to China and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman -- may see little desirable in attacking Bachmann. Huntsman will likely be busy slapping at Romney, and Romney will likely see taking on Bachmann as punching down.
If Ryan Lizza's profile of Bachmann in the New Yorker -- on newsstands now -- had run during the general campaign and Bachmann was the Republican nominee, the piece would be great fodder for a Democrat such as President Obama. But in a Republican primary debate in Iowa -- a state where many regard Bachmann's intense religiosity as an asset -- will any of the Republican hopefuls bring up any of the issues raised by Lizza? In particular, will anyone make hay of Bachmann's recommendation years ago of a book written by an author who believed that during the Civil War, "the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North"?
If anyone may be looking for material on Bachmann, it's Pawlenty. He was primed to buffet Romney in the last debate, on June 14 in New Hampshire. He must focus his fire for the most part on Bachmann, but will have to be careful not to look like a bully. He'll likely stick to his tried and true argument that Bachmann lacks executive experience, but that he has it in spades.
2. Can Bachmann deliver an encore of June 14?
At her first debate, Bachmann's performance drew rave reviews. She was new, she stayed on message and she introduced her biography flawlessly. Since then, however, she has come under the withering heat of the spotlight that accompanies the big stage. Some of the shots taken at her, such as Newsweek's "Queen of Rage" cover, have backfired and may have even helped Bachmann. But she has been dogged by her views on homosexuality, her husband Marcus' past work counseling gay people to shift their sexual orientation to heterosexual and inconsistencies between the way she has criticized federal programs but also utilized them (Medicaid and earmarks in particular). Many Republicans believe Bachmann will fade or combust at some point. If they're right, will Thursday night be the beginning of the end? Or can she continue to prove her critics wrong?
If Bachmann does well, it will position her right where she wants to be heading into Saturday's straw poll. If she falters, that could sap her of momentum and give someone like Pawlenty a jolt.
3. Will there be much substance?
This is a presidential debate in the age of television, with eight candidates on stage, so the answer is probably not. But one can hope. The economy will be center stage -- and all of the candidates will say how horrible a job Obama has done. Look for how they talk about job creation. Do they come out and say what most conservatives think, that government should get out of the way and let the private sector create jobs? They will all likely want to express an opinion on the prospects of success for the super committee created by the debt ceiling deal. The consensus will likely be cautious optimism that the committee will find $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction solely through spending cuts, with an addendum that it's nowhere near enough.
Will they talk at length about entitlement reform? Conservatives, especially, believe that the nation is on an unsustainable fiscal trajectory primarily because of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. It would be great to have a debate just about the details of their plans for that one set of issues. But don't hold your breath for that.
Other than that, look for how much the candidates talk about comprehensive tax reform. That is the one area where Washington could very likely get something constructive and dramatic done, lowering personal and corporate rates while also closing out loopholes for big or politically-connected companies. But a deal on that would give Obama a boost heading into the election. Do the candidates trumpet the need for it anyway? Look also for the continued development of the Republican field's less interventionist views on foreign policy, especially as it relates to Afghanistan.
4. How well can Jon Huntsman knife fight? And can Romney stay on message?
It's Huntsman's first debate, and an opportunity for him to make a good first impression with voters. Perhaps he'll leave it at that, and muddle through unremarkably. That would say a lot about whether Huntsman is in fact running for 2016, as many speculate. But if Pawlenty learned anything from the first debate, it's that the Republican party is in no mood for those who want to play it safe. They want strongly held opinions delivered with no chaser. They want blunt force, not nuance. So if Huntsman wants to do more than say hello to primary voters, and wants to actually move the needle, he'll have to throw some punches. And what better target than Romney? The two already can't stand each other. Look for Huntsman to go hard after Romney's health care reform in Massachusetts, likely with a smile. If Romney counter punches, the thing to watch is whether Huntsman's easygoing smile stays on his face.
In June, every expectation was that Romney would come under assault from Pawlenty and others. That didn't happen. Pawlenty backed off, and that set the tone. There is a chance that happens again in Ames -- Pawlenty is focused on Bachmann, and many of the second-tier candidates could be as well. There are questions about Huntsman's appetite for a fight. And perhaps the rage at President Obama is so great that whatever else is left over in the collective artillery box goes toward the Democrat in office. Romney's strategy is no surprise. It's the same as it was in New Hampshire: stay focused on Obama and on drawing contrasts with him. But if Huntsman takes on Romney and manages to knock him off balance, that could encourage the others to follow suit. And maybe someone like Gingrich, who has little to lose, might decide that he'd like to speak his mind about the Romney-sponsored Massachusetts health care law, about Romney's praise for tax hikes to put the Bay State on more solid financial footing, or about Romney's contorted position on abortion.
5. Will there be any complaints about leapfroggers Rick Perry and Sarah Palin?
The eight candidates on stage Thursday have all been doing the hard work of running for months. They've spent hours preparing for the debate. For a few, their campaigns' futures will depend on how well they do in the debate and on Saturday in Ames. As they sweat the fallout, however, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will traipse into the state on Sunday as he continues his leisurely contemplation of whether to run for president. By Sunday, the political world will have a better clue as to Perry's intentions -- he's supposed to announce Saturday in South Carolina that he intends to run. Perry's trip to South Carolina and New Hampshire on Saturday, followed by his appearance in Iowa on Sunday, is already seen as an intentional effort to overshadow the straw poll. He is polling nationally in second place behind Romney.
And now, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is going to attend the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, likely on Friday. So there will be two non-candidates who both say they are contemplating running and who are distracting from the rest of the field the day before, the day of and the day after the straw poll. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that for the first time ever, the straw poll will allow Iowans to write in the name of a candidate. But it has to be hard for the full-time campaigners to take. Look for any of those on stage to call for candidates to get in or get on with it, or to begin criticizing Perry or Palin without naming them. Romney, in fact, has already begun to do just that, bracketing Perry as a life-long politician with no private sector experience, in comparison to his own time as a private equity executive.