MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan 7 (Reuters) - The knives will come out at back-to-back debates this weekend as U.S. Republican presidential hopefuls frantically jockey for position days before New Hampshire's key primary.
Debates are once again the main show in the 2012 race after candidates spent two weeks on the road campaigning in coffee shops and pizza places through Iowa and now, New Hampshire.
The six contenders will go at it twice within 12 hours, first on Saturday night and then again on Sunday morning. It is their last, best chance to sway large numbers of voters with New Hampshire set to vote on Tuesday.
Mitt Romney, the front-running former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, is expected to win in New Hampshire by a large margin but second and third place-finishers could disrupt his march toward the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in November's election.
"The debates are their opportunity to be seen by tens of thousands of voters," said former state Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen. "They are critically important."
More than a dozen debates thus far have led to defining moments in the Republican race.
Rick Perry's "Oops" moment when he could not list all three government agencies he wanted to eliminate contributed to his collapse in polls. Romney's offer of a $10,000 bet with Perry made him look like an out-of-touch high flier.
This weekend's debates may breathe new life into Newt Gingrich, who has fallen apart under the weight of negative ads and attacks in the weeks since he built a lead in the polls based on strong debate performances.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who often complained about not being asked enough questions at debates, will now literally be at center stage and may have to face tough questions about his record in the U.S. Senate and his anti-gay rights stance.
The rest of the pack could turn against Romney, whose objective at the twin sessions is to simply hold his own and not make any mistakes. After winning the Iowa caucuses by a mere eight votes, he urged his supporters not to get complacent.
Nevertheless, a Suffolk University poll gave him 39 percent support in New Hampshire, followed by 17 percent for libertarian Congressman Ron Paul, 10 percent for Gingrich and 9 percent each for Santorum and Jon Huntsman.
"Let me tell you, those polls, they can just disappear overnight," Romney said at a spaghetti dinner in Laconia on Friday night, urging supporters to "give me a bigger margin than eight votes if you possibly can."
A big win in New Hampshire and then a victory in the next vote in South Carolina would all but give Romney a stranglehold on the Republican presidential nomination.
ROMNEY A TARGET
Romney is likely to keep his focus on Obama, and try to offer a forward-looking message on how to create jobs.
"He and his team understand there will be a lot of attacks coming at him," said a Romney backer, Republican strategist Phil Musser. "I expect he'll be prepared for that."
Campaigning in New Hampshire has been reasonably muted as the campaign teams prepare their candidates for the TV showdowns, the first one on ABC and the other on NBC's "Meet The Press."
The debate may represent a do-or-die chance for former U.S. ambassador to China Huntsman, who has been trailing badly in the polls despite skipping Iowa to focus on New Hampshire.
Santorum has Romney in his sights after narrowly losing the Iowa caucuses.
Santorum is to pick up the endorsement on Sunday in South Carolina of conservative leader Gary Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families, in a sign the Christian right could be uniting behind Santorum.
"While we have many fine candidates in the competition I believe Senator Santorum best personifies the (Republican President Ronald) Reagan-inspired conservatism that unites the GOP," Bauer is to say, according a statement obtained by Reuters.
Santorum wants to jump into second place in New Hampshire and emerge as the main conservative alternative to Romney looking ahead to Jan. 21 in South Carolina, where his social conservative message has a better chance of being heard.
He goes into the debates suggesting Romney's healthcare plan that he developed as governor of neighboring Massachusetts meant that Romney is not different enough from Obama.
"That's why New Hampshire can't faint," he said in Dublin on Friday. "They have to stand and be bold. We need a clear contrast, someone who paints a very different vision."
Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, has been rampaging through New Hampshire calling Romney a "timid Massachusetts moderate." Gingrich was left embittered by his fourth-place finish in Iowa, blaming attacks from Romney and his backers.
"He even raised taxes on people who were blind," Gingrich said of Romney at a tele-town hall on Friday, referring to an attempt in Massachusetts to impose a $10 fee for receiving a certificate of blindness.
Ron Paul, who is running second behind Romney in New Hampshire, may get some heat over an ad from an outside group called "NHLiberty4Paul" that targeted Huntsman and his adopted daughters. One is from China, the other from India.
"American values. Or Chinese," the ad asks, to a soundtrack of Chinese music. It calls Huntsman "the Manchurian Candidate" and ends with an image of Huntsman dressed as China's Communist leader Mao Zedong, and the words "Vote Ron Paul."
Paul told CNN he disavowed the ad and could not control the actions of all his supporters. Huntsman said he did not mind ads targeting him but that attacking his daughters was out of bounds. (Additional reporting by Sam Youngman, Jason McLure and Ros Krasny; Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)
Republican Debate: Republicans Sharpen Knives As New Hampshire Primary Looms