December 15, 2011

Stakes couldn't be higher in last debate before Iowa caucuses

By Peter Hamby and Paul Steinhauser, CNN
December 15, 2011 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
The rivalry in the GOP race is heating up between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, here debating Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.
The rivalry in the GOP race is heating up between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, here debating Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Sioux City, Iowa (CNN) -- Thursday's Republican presidential debate in Iowa will the final episode in one of the most popular reality television series of 2011.
The GOP presidential race has been defined by more than a dozen debates that have been watched by millions of television viewers.
The debates have forced some candidates to falter -- most clearly Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- while propelling at least one, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to the cusp of his party's nomination.
Thursday's showdown in Sioux City will be last one before the Iowa caucuses kick off the nomination fight in less than three weeks.
The stakes could not be higher for all involved.
"With Thursday's debate being the last time the candidates square off both before the Christmas holiday and Iowa caucus, this will take on an increased urgency," explained Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and senior adviser to the Iowa Republican Party, which is sponsoring the debate along with Fox News.
"If first impressions matter in politics -- and they do -- so too does the last thing voters see before casting a vote," Heye added. "For Iowa caucus-goers, this debate will be that last opportunity to see the candidates go head to head."
The Republican race seems to be coming down to two candidates: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Gingrich, the latest in a long line of Republicans to seize the anti-Romney mantle.
But while national polls suggest a two-man race, much more crucial polls in Iowa tell a different story.
Perry is in fourth place in Iowa but seeing signs of late momentum in a state that will likely determine the fate of his once-soaring campaign.
With an avalanche of television ads touting his social conservatism and the launch of a 42-city bus tour around Iowa, Perry is generating serious comeback buzz among Iowa GOP insiders.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, with a loyal network of pastors and home-schoolers behind her, is showing similar signs of life.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is hoping for one last chance to prove himself viable to the Iowans he has been courting with little success since 2009.
Gingrich continues to hold a robust lead as he does nationally, but has slipped in the last week under the weight of attacks from nearly every one of his GOP rivals.
Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are jockeying for second place in Iowa, but for very different reasons.
Paul has a devoted core of libertarian-leaning supporters and has successfully run what amounts to a traditional Iowa campaign premised on grassroots organizing, paid advertising and frequent in-person appearances.
Romney has not spent nearly as much time in the state as his opponents, and appears to be surviving in the Hawkeye State based largely on the network of support he built here during his failed 2008 presidential campaign.
But with Gingrich surging in Romney-fortified New Hampshire, his advisers in Boston are scrambling to find a way to stop Gingrich from winning Iowa and vaulting out of the state with a head of steam that could carry him through all four early voting states.
"Romney doesn't have to win Iowa," said GOP strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos. "He just has to keep Gingrich from winning Iowa. If he does, his last serious opponent will be dead and stored in a freezer."
Romney has stepped up his criticisms in the last week, openly questioning Gingrich's temperament and going so far as to label the former House Speaker "zany" in a Wednesday interview with The New York Times.
He and his wife Ann have also been speaking up about the strength of their long marriage -- a thinly-veiled attempt to call attention to Gingrich's three marriages and rocky personal life.
Then there is the Restore Our Future PAC, a Romney-backing independent group that is pouring $3.1 million into a television and radio advertising campaign puffing up their candidate and attacking Gingrich.
Romney is expected to keep up the pressure on Thursday.
Though he has lowered expectations for himself and declared Gingrich the Republican front-runner, Romney is still expected to unleash a fierce offensive against his new rival.
"Expect Mitt Romney, in his elegant way, to slice Newt Gingrich to pieces," Castellanos said. "Romney won't do with an ax, but a rapier ... At the end, however, nobody remembers how you won, just that you did. Romney doesn't have to win the nomination, he just has to make sure no one else wins it."
Also on Romney's plate Thursday: A chance to make a much-needed impression on Iowa caucus-goers, said Republican strategist Tim Albrecht.
"He's had a shy, timid approach to Iowa, and Thursday night is his opportunity to crash through the caucus door," said Albrecht, the communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. "If he does so, Iowans will give him a serious look on January 3."
But Romney will likely be forced to play defense as well, with Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman expected to take their shots.
Perry is looking for a crucial top-three finish in Iowa, and knocking Romney out of that position may be his only way forward.
Huntsman is not competing in Iowa but in the next pivotal state, New Hampshire, where he has staked his campaign fortunes.
Romney remains the front-runner there, and the debate will be Huntsman's final chance before a national audience to weaken Romney before New Hampshire holds its first-in-the-nation primary on January 10.
The task for Gingrich, meanwhile, is relatively simple: Remain calm under pressure.
After a summertime campaign collapse, Gingrich regained his footing thanks to a string of confident and authoritative debate performances throughout the fall.
Gingrich is known for his sometimes cranky demeanor and a tendency to offer pie-in-the-sky policy proposals, but he easily weathered his first debate as GOP front-runner last weekend in Des Moines even as Romney and others tried to land their punches.
Since assuming the lead in the GOP race, Gingrich has put aside his temper and displayed his sunny side on the campaign trail.
He also vowed on Tuesday to avoid negative campaigning.
But if he gets drawn into a scrape with one of his foes, Gingrich must be careful not to flash his trademark scowl and risk reminding Republicans about the polarizing figure that left the speaker's office under a cloud of scandal and Republican in-fighting back in 1999.
"Gingrich can't afford to lose his cool," Castellanos said. "If he does, he becomes the mean politician Paul and Perry are painting in their negative ads. If Newt does his 'angry badger' impression, he will be finished."

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