Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is taking on all comers and defending his gubernatorial record on job creation and healthcare reform Monday against a GOP field that includes three candidates — Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Romney himself — who are making their 2011 debuts in the debating arena.
As the presumptive frontrunner, Romney faces two challenges: Meeting the high expectations for him to outshine his rivals, while also dodging the rhetorical bombs lobbed at him by the other candidates who see him as the challenger they’ll have to defeat.
Although Republicans usually shy away from bare-knuckled exchanges in the early debates, there are indications that unspoken rule may be tossed out the window early this cycle.
On Fox News Sunday, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty lowered the boom on Romney by calling President Barack Obama’s controversial healthcare reforms “Obamneycare.”
“President Obama said that he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare,” Pawlenty said. “What I don’t understand is that they both continue to defend it.”
The obvious effort to link Romney and Obama in the minds of GOP primary voters provoked an above-the-fray response from Romney spokesman Andrea Saul.
She said in a statement that Republicans “should keep the focus on President Obama’s failure to create jobs and control spending. People are looking for leadership on the economy and the budget. Mitt Romney wants to be that leader.”
On Monday afternoon, though, Pawlenty signaled to reporters in New Hampshire that he probably won’t use the “Obamneycare” line again during the debate. But if Pawlenty backs off too much, pundits may question his ability to distinguish himself from a crowded GOP field of candidates who are all trying to draw attention to their respective campaigns.
Romney’s strength in early polls make him an obvious target in the debate airing on CNN at 8 p.m. Eastern on Monday.
A new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll shows 24 percent of Republican voters identify Romney as their top candidate. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who will not be on the stage and has not tossed her hat in the ring, placed second with 20 percent. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who like Palin has not announced, placed third with 12 percent, followed by Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who tied with 10 percent. Texas Rep. Ron Paul tallied 7 percent.
Some pundits already are warning that in a GOP field populated with headline-drawing candidates such as Cain and Minnesota GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann, Pawlenty may be short on time to distinguish himself and raise his national profile. That could account for his broadside on Romney on Sunday.
Pawlenty did not stand out in the prior debate held in South Carolina. Cain grabbed the headlines in that one, bringing down the house when he was asked about his lack of prior political experience in Washington.
Pointing out that most national politicians have held office before, Cain asked rhetorically, “How’s that working out for you?”
The Hill Associate Editor A.B. Stoddard tells Newsmax: “The most important thing tonight is Tim Pawlenty, and whether or not he tries to take this moment, before Romney tries to remake himself.”
She adds: “Tim Pawlenty’s entire candidacy and campaign seems to be based on being the anti-Romney, so I’ll be interested to see just how much of the anti-Romney he wants to be tonight...”
Pawlenty is likely to figure prominently in discussions over what to do about skyrocketing Medicare costs.
Polls show a strong voter backlash over the plan advanced by Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan on reining in Medicare costs by privatizing the system.
Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Alter, a staunch critic of that plan, says Pawlenty’s are even less likely to bring about a balanced budget.
“The only plan that’s less responsible than Ryan’s is Pawlenty’s plan,” Alter tells Newsmax. “At least Ryan’s plan flattens out tax rates. It gets rid of a lot of loopholes and tax expenditures and corporate welfare and that kind of thing, on the way to a 25 percent rate.
"Pawlenty both wants the 25 percent top rate, and to keep all those loopholes,” says Alter, noting that seems incongruous as far as balancing the budget goes.
Alter says he is particularly interested in watching Bachmann’s performance.
New Hampshire marks Bachmann’s debate debut, and Alter sees her as a strong contender to win the Iowa caucus that kicks off the primary season.
Stoddard says Monday’s debate may well determine whether Bachmann is seen as a “vanity candidate” with no real shot of winning, or a genuine contender.
"She will be bashing the president, no doubt, but I think that she will have to make the case that she is also to be taken seriously in this lineup, and not just someone who can wow the crowd at her own individual events by picking apart Obamacare and talking about the woes of the country,” says Stoddard.
“She’s joining the fight for the Republican nomination, so she’s going to have to show voters what her strengths are in this lineup of other candidates,” Stoddard adds.
Other questions pundits hope will be answered by the New Hampshire debate:
Can Herman Raise More Cain?
– Generally acknowledged as the winner of the first debate, which did not include Romney or Bachmann, Cain will have to show he can perform on a larger stage against a stronger field. That task may be more difficult following an inaccurate remark Cain made in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, that President Obama “was raised in Kenya.”
Can Gingrich Avoid More Self-Inflicted Wounds?
– His campaign appears to be reeling after his assertion last month that Ryan’s plan for reforming entitlements is “right-wing social engineering” -- a view Gingrich later backed off of. On Friday, virtually Gingrich’s entire campaign staff resigned, reportedly due to differences over how best to run his campaign. To revive his candidacy, Gingrich will have to find a way to hit the restart button Monday.
“Gingrich will be an interesting sideshow.” says Stoddard. “I think his candidacy is pretty much done with. He wants to hang in, that’s fine, but I don’t know how he can really be considered a serious candidate anymore.”
Can Ron Paul Break the 10 Percent Ceiling?
Paul has devoted followers who love his libertarian-leaning philosophy, but his proposals to eliminate several cabinet-level bureaucracies and immediately withdrawal U.S. troops from the Middle East have made it difficult to win broad support so far. Will he try to soften his image?
Who Can Break Out of the “Sideshow” Stereotype?
Once you get past Romney and Pawlenty and possibly Bachmann, the other candidates have already been relegated to “circus sideshow” status by the mainstream media. Look for Cain and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to make an effort to break out of that pigeon hole.
Which Absent Candidate Casts the Longest Shadow?
Three oft-mentioned contenders won’t be on the stage Monday: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. But just because they aren’t competing in the debate doesn’t mean their influence won’t be felt by the other candidates.
Romney knows Huntsman is working to make major inroads in New Hampshire, for example. Perry lacks Romney’s chops in private industry, but his state is leading the nation in much-needed job creation. And Palin recently made headlines when her bus tour happened to visit New Hampshire the same day Romney officially threw his hat in the ring. Palin’s celebrity power is such that she will probably continue to be a looming presence on the campaign trail, until she finally announces whether she will actually run.
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