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N.H. Debate Preview
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Brownback will face a bigger crowd at tonight's debate. (AP).

As the Republicans gather at 9 p.m. tonight to debate in New Hampshire, it may be tempting to switch over to the Dodgers and Cubs instead, considering that one of the top GOP contenders is yet again sitting the event out, choosing to take the couch rather than podium route to the nomination. But even without Fred Thompson gracing the stage, there remains some potential for drama and relevance. Among the things to look for:

1. Will Mitt Romney -- perhaps with an assist from Tom Tancredo -- dare to say face to face what he's been attacking Rudy Giuliani on the airwaves for: allowing New York City to become a de facto "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants when he was mayor? Will Giuliani counter with a reminder of Romney's employment of illegal immigrants to take care of his landscaping, or otherwise dip into the vast file of Romney materials made available today by the Massachusetts Democratic Party?

2. Will the candidates seize on President Bush's suggestion, during his surprise visit to Iraq over the weekend, that a positive report from General David Petraeus later this month could set the stage for a drawdown in forces next year? Will John McCain counter, as he did in an interview with the Concord Monitor editorial board yesterday, that a reduction in forces should be done only for the "right reasons" -- thus further cementing his anti-withdrawal position within the field?

3. Will Mike Huckabee use the momentum generated by his second-place finish in the Ames straw poll to launch attacks at any of his better-funded opponents -- by, for instance, drawing a more direct link between his populist warnings about the Republican Party becoming a "wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street" and the multi-millionaire venture capitalist and the longtime Washington lobbyist who are his chief rivals for the mainstream conservative vote?

4. Will Sam Brownback look out at a hall full of people and utter a cry of gratitude, having only yesterday been reminded of the horror of a near-empty room?

For more debate preview, check out Chris Cillizza's The Fix.

--Alec MacGillis

By Washington Post editors  |  September 5, 2007; 4:30 PM ET
 
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