It All Comes Down To Tonight

Put out the dog.  Get a sitter for the kids.  Heat up the popcorn, and ice down the beer.  Tonight’s CNN debate – the 20th of the campaign season – is slated to start in less than an hour.  And it may be the biggest one so far.  The debate comes less than a week before primaries in Arizona and Michigan, and polls in both states indicate close races between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.  One week after that, it’s March 6 – Super Tuesday – when Newt Gingrich hopes to resurrect (once again!) his campaign with a strong performance in the southern tier of states holding primaries that day. Ron Paul, meanwhile, continues his strategy of picking up delegates, piecemeal, as he continues his slow (very, very slow) slog toward the convention.

So what do the candidates have to do?  For Mitt and Rick, this is a high stakes event. Despite his surge in the polls since his three-state victories in early February, Santorum has yet to prove that he can win in a high turnout state. His best chance to do so may be Michigan, where he is running neck-and-neck with Mitt, and where his brand of economic populism may play well.  He is undoubtedly going to be pressed on some of his more strident comments that have been resurrected in recent days (Is that you….Satan?) I don’t expect him to back away from his socially conservative views, particularly since several social issues, including Obama’s effort to find a compromise with religious organizations on funding for contraception, are sure to be raised tonight but he may seek to repackage them in a softer, kinder manner.

Mitt, meanwhile, released a more detailed tax plan today, the first step in a strategy designed to return the campaign toward the economic issues where he feels more comfortable, and which he sees as his strength. (It’s also an effort to trump the President’s own corporate tax plan, which he released earlier today.) Romney is slated to give a major economic speech later this week, and I expect him to preview that in tonight’s debate.  Because immigration is such a big issue in Arizona, I also think Mitt will reiterate his hard line on illegal immigration, which may set up a reprise of the Mitt-hiring-illegals snafu we saw raised in an earlier debate.  I expect him to try to throw Rick’s Senate record back against him, particularly key votes on spending bills, in an effort to present him as another Washingtonian who couldn’t rein in spending.  Look for Mitt to try to do to Rick what he did to Newt in Florida – bear down with a steady barrage of criticisms citing Rick’s Senate record.

Keep in mind that Newt Gingrich, having already written off Arizona and Michigan, is gearing tonight’s performance to Super Tuesday.  That means making the case to Tea party conservatives and evangelicals that he, and not Santorum, best represents their views. He needs to regain his policy mojo as the man with comprehensive, yet simple, solutions to the nation’s problems.  In recent days he been pinning his comeback on energy policy, and I expect him to stress that quite a bit during the debate.  Which Newt will we see tonight?  The media-baiting, elite-hating, policy-stating, stage-dominating Newt who clearly won most of the early debates, or the I’m-not-bold, I’m-just-old Newt who fizzled in the Florida debate?  This may be his last chance to use the debates to reignite his campaign.  Indeed, it may be the last time we see him in a debate, period, pending the Super Tuesday results.

Finally, Ron Paul, who has seen a bit of the luster of his candidacy wear off after disappointing caucus performances, is hoping a strong performance will help build a bit of momentum heading into Super Tuesday.

CNN’s John King, who inadvertently ignited Newt’s campaign in the debate prior to South Carolina by asking about Gingrich’s ex-wife, will be moderating tonight’s event.  We can only hope that similar Newtonian moment takes place.  Even without that, this promises to be a no-holds-barred event. The one question I do have is how many people are still tuning into these debates.  It’s been almost a month since the last one, so I suspect the viewing audience will be large, but I can’t be certain.

No matter. Sit back and enjoy.  I’ll be back on live blogging in a bit.  As always, I invited you to join in view the comments sections.

Let the Games Begin!

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