Iowa Showdown: Five Stories To Watch In Tonight’s GOP Debate

You might say that 2012 really starts tonight. At 9pm Eastern time, the declared Republican presidential candidates take the stage at Iowa — barely two days ahead of the Ames Straw Poll, which many consider the unofficial first round of the primary season.

Of course, this debate will also be interesting for who it doesn’t have: Texas Governor Rick Perry. Today he made it official that he’ll be declaring his candidacy on Saturday. His shadow is sure to loom large over tonight’s proceedings.

TPM’s livewire will keep you updated of the night’s events as they happen. We’ll also be posting blog posts, fuller articles, and video throughout the evening.

Meanwhile, in preparation for the debate itelf, here’s TPM’s advice on what to look for:1. Can Anyone Throw Mitt Romney Off His Game?

Mitt Romney was considered the default frontrunner heading into 2012 given his relative strength in fundraising, national polling, and prior campaign experience. But he also entered the race with major vulnerabilities, chief among them his support for a health care mandate in Massachusetts that provided the model for President Obama’s national law. Far from getting bogged down, however, Romney has taken an early lead in national polls and easily raised more money than any of his competitors so far. His opponents, starting with Tim Pawlenty at the last debate, have failed to land a decent punch and Romney’s been left free to run his campaign as if it were a general election contest with a polished set of attacks on President Obama’s jobs record. Advertising money is tight for the rest of the field, so if they want to knock Romney down a peg the debates may be their best chance to make an impact. Will any of them bite?

2. Michele Bachmann’s Skeletons

Buoyed in part by a strong debate performance in June, Michele Bachmann has surged into a solid lead in Iowa while quickly establishing herself as serious contender nationally. Bachmann’s meteoric rise from rabble-rousing Congresswoman to magazine cover material comes despite an endless slew of gaffes and difficult news stories during the same period. From flubbing John Wayne’s Iowa hometown in spectacular fashion, to offering up some questionable Revolutionary history, to signing slavery-ambivalent pledges, plenty of Bachmann’s stumbles are self-inflicted. But there’s also been a string of tough news stories on issues ranging from her husband’s clinic to her more out-there fundamentalist influences, to her private requests for federal aid that she’s bashed in public. None of it seems to stick so far and only Tim Pawlenty has made a serious attempt among the candidates to go after her directly. But Bachmann hasn’t faced questions about these issues in a debate yet — could one of them trip her up?

3. Hey, It’s Jon Huntsman

How long ago was the last debate? Jon Huntsman wasn’t even in the race yet. He hasn’t made much of an impact on the primaries since entering, though, and is in danger of falling into fringe candidate territory if he doesn’t improve his standing in the polls. The debate will give him his first big chance to show what he’s got in front of a national audience. Can he make a big impression in a crowded room?

4. The Downgrade

At the end of the day, the candidates mostly agreed on the debt ceiling deal — except for Huntsman, they didn’t like it. But the subsequent S&P downgrade and market collapse is murkier territory. While the candidates all agree it’s at least partly Obama’s fault, the rating agency’s stated reasons for the downgrade were extremely specific: House Republicans’ intransigence on tax increases and their willingness to threaten self-imposed default to get what they want. Getting around this basic fact has required some of the more aggressive candidates, like Bachmann, to twist themselves into logical pretzels. A good question from the moderator on this front could produce some unpredictable answers from the field.

5. The Missing Podium

The debate may be most noteworthy for who isn’t in attendance: Texas Governor Rick Perry. Will his expected entrance loom large over the proceedings? So far the candidates have mostly ignored him, although Romney wryly cited a poll from last month showing that he was the only candidate leading Obama in Texas. Hint hint. But it will be interesting to see if anyone starts trotting out contrasts with the governor early on, especially from the middle-of-the-pack candidates who stand to be buried in an avalanche of Perry news after he declares.