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Let The Games Begin! A Guide To Tonight's GOP Debate

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Medicare Privatization
Among key conservative constituencies, the House GOP budget has become a key litmus test for Republican contenders. Do they support the plan? If not, would they at least pledge to sign it into law if given the chance as president. We've already seen several leading hopefuls tie themselves in knots trying to explain this. Gingrich famously called the plan "right-wing social engineering" before engineering himself one of the clumsiest walk-backs in the history of politics. Bachmann, who voted for the plan, now says she'd like to "asterisk" her vote with her concerns about privatizing Medicare. Romney and Pawlenty have tried to dodge -- it's not exactly how they'd go about phasing out the program -- though Pawlenty admitted that he'd sign it into law. Watch closely to see whether any of them try to ... refine their positions.



RomneyCare
This will be Mitt Romney's first 2012 debate, and thus, the first chance his competitors will have to maul him in person for creating the Massachusetts universal health care law that served as the model for ObamaCare. Romney is standing by his law, which he now says was the right solution for his state, but not necessarily for every state. But in the past, long before the health care law became the right's bête noire, Romney said he hoped his law would serve as a model for the nation. So did other top conservatives, who have since abandoned Romney and the entire notion of universal health care.



Newtocalypse
The largest single development in the GOP presidential field last week was Newt Gingrich's sudden implosion. In a coordinated move, more than a dozen of his top aides abandoned him and his campaign over what they described as differences in strategic vision. Gingrich has weathered one of the rockiest starts to a presidential campaign in recent memory, so the development wasn't that surprising. But look for the moderators to press him on his campaign's viability. And maybe, too, look for other combatants to twist the many knives still poking out of his back.



Bachmania
We've been waiting for weeks and weeks to see if one of the GOP's top tea partiers would enter the race, and now one of them has. This will be Bachmann's first appearance on a debate stage as a GOP contender, and she'll be looking to steal thunder from both dark horses and establishmentarians alike. This could manifest in any number of hilarious ways, but look in particular for her to go a full Santorum on social issues, or attack Romney for being a socialist who passed universal health care and believes global warming is caused by human beings.



Ron Paul REVOLUTION
For years now, Ron Paul has served one of the most interesting roles in all of politics. Within his party, he's an eccentric iconoclast whose attacks on GOP orthodoxy force Republicans to answer tough, uncomfortable questions. But that's only because, among conservative base voters, he's a wildly popular rebel -- a small government ideologue who breathes life into fossilized economic theories and wants to take the GOP to readopt an isolationist ethos it never actually adopted in the first place. But in these events, he regularly injects a dose of outside-the-bubbleism that would otherwise be missing. In his absence, we'd be watching six doctrinaire Republicans, each hoping to out Republican each other within the bounds of standard modern Republicanism. Paul -- and his legions of fans -- will make force the others to publicly grapple with the dogma itself. In the past, that's triggered some extremely telling -- and compelling -- exchanges.

About The Author

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Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com