Not since the first head-to-CPU contest between Gary Kasparov and Deep Blue has the world waited so breathlessly for the kind of battle of the minds we’re likely to witness Monday evening.
For the first time this primary season, seven of the top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination will field tough questions, pitch Republican voters, and take on each others’ foibles and apostasies during an 8 pm ET, CNN/WMUR/New Hampshire Union Leader-sponsored debate in Manchester, New Hampshire.
On hand will be Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) — all of whom participated in the first GOP debate last month. They’ll be joined on stage by three big names in Republican politics: Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
Like every primary debate since the advent of cable television, the forum will be marked by predictable talking points, unctuous spells of self-flattery, and reflexive attacks on the incumbent president.
But as the GOP field takes shape, it will also be one of the first opportunities for the contenders to stake out or clarify their positions on the issues defining this race. Here are the five key things to be on the look out for.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.