MANCHESTER, N.H. -- With precious few days remaining before the New Hampshire primary, and a growing expectation that Mitt Romney will run away with the GOP nomination, Saturday night's debate seems poised to be a brutal evening for the former Massachusetts governor.
Aides and advisers to several of Romney's challengers tell The Huffington Post that they expect a torrent of attacks launched his way, with hopes that they can trip him up enough to keep the primary process going.
"Mitt's gonna need to wear a flak jacket tonight," said a top New Hampshire adviser to one of the GOP candidates.
The lines have been drawn in recent days, with a bereaved Newt Gingrich calling the former governor a liar and pledging to hold him accountable for his distortions come debate time. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a surrogate for Jon Huntsman's campaign, told The Huffington Post that the Utah Republican was eager to produce a "visual" contrast between himself and Romney. On the trail leading up to the debate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum previewed his own anti-Romney script for the evening, one that questioned the whole notion of the frontrunner's electability.
In Massachusetts, Santorum declared, "fees went up, taxes went up, spending went up. We saw Romneycare instituted, which was the template for Obamacare." He paused for a second, before asking, "That's the reality of the candidate we want to put up as a contrast?"
In private, advisers to the other Republican governors concede that Saturday night is as close to a now-or-never moment as it gets with respect to knocking Romney down a notch. The debate has a perfect moderator for partisan knife fighting: ABC's George Stephanopolous, who famously morphed a 2008 Democratic primary debate into a discussion of Barack Obama's ties to Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright alongside questions about why he didn't wear a flag pin on his lapel. Unlike the second debate this weekend -- a Sunday morning affair moderated by NBC's "Meet the Press" and Facebook -- viewers won't lose interest when the NFL playoffs air hours later.
Whether the rest of the field can seize the moment remains unclear. After all, it's not as if there was a lack of thirst for a sustained Romney attack in the past. Former presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty talked up the political dangers of Massachusetts's health care prior to whiffing, mightily, on a chance to press Romney about it during a debate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's attacks have been deflected either as tired lines ("nice try," Romney said to one) or oddly-timed (going after the former governor for hiring a lawn care company that employed undocumented workers). Gingrich's pledge to stay positive has limited his maneuvering on the debate stage. He recently spent his time apologizing for an attack on Romney's private equity days at Bain Capital instead of launching new ones.
But political desperation can do strange things to candidates. Gingrich has all but formally conceded that he's abandoning his positive campaign pledge. And on Saturday, the Bain issue resurfaced -- not once, but twice. In the morning, Santorum took Romney to task for having the wrong kind of business experience.
"I just don't think it is the skill set we need as president," he said. "We don't need a manager.... we need someone to fundamentally change Washington."
Later in the afternoon, Gingrich's longtime aide, Rick Tyler, announced that the super PAC he now heads will soon release a 27-minute long video on Romney's days in private equity.
"It is breathtaking," he said, breathlessly. "It's a short film. It documents four case studies of Bain gutting businesses, taking all the assets and cleaning out people's pensions and firing all the people. That is the human toll of predatory paper shuffling, which is not capitalism."
Asked whether he thought the topic might come up Saturday night, he replied: "I hope... There is precious few moments and nobody has done it."