CNN/YouTube Republican Debate Preview
As Republicans gather in Florida for another presidential debate, expectations are high that the heated rhetoric of late on the campaign trail will spill over into tonight's festivities.
The harshest exchanges in recent days have come from the two co-favorites for the nomination: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The two have traded long-distance charges over their political records, with particular focus on crime statistics. Now they will get a chance to directly confront one another tonight.
Will the sparks fly? Neither campaign would offer a hint or even mention their main rival by name when asked about their strategy heading into the debate.
"Governor Romney views these debates as an opportunity to present voters with his ideas and his vision for the direction he wants to lead the country," said spokesman Kevin Madden. "Look for him to talk about the important challenges we face with our economy, with our national security, with families and how he will lead on those issues."
Katie Levinson, communications director for Giuliani, offered a slightly more pointed -- if still polite -- thought. "Rudy will continue to show a level of authenticity and candor voters have come to appreciate," she said. "Authenticity" and "candor" are code words for what Giuliani's campaign believes is Romney's greatest weakness: his tendency to switch positions on key issues important to Republican-base voters, most notably abortion.
Despite their campaigns' semi-evasiveness, our sense is that the two men will do battle tonight. Giuliani is pugnacious by nature and is spoiling for a scrap with Romney over which man has the more impressive record in office. Romney understands that in order to win the nomination, he will have to beat Giuliani one way or the other (as soon as the New Hampshire primary, as late as the Florida contest) and won't hesitate to punch back.
What we don't know, and what will be interesting to watch, is which man strikes the first blow. Giuliani is the more naturally aggressive of the two, but Romney may feel pressured to push back against the story line that he is faltering, as polls shows his lead narrowing in Iowa.
Speaking of Iowa, it has become the focus of the Republican race -- thanks in large part to the rise of former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.).
Huckabee's ascent has been accompanied by a higher level of scrutiny from his opponents, and it seems likely that the former Arkansas governor will come under attack tonight too. To date in these debates, Huckabee has emerged as a winner nearly every time thanks to his sunny demeanor and the fact that none of his opponents saw much to gain in attacking him. With that equation changed, Huckabee faces the tough task of trying to stay on the positive track that has gained him friends and influenced people while also trying to parry some of the negative information his rivals are sure to roll out.
"We do expect some negative attacks from some of the other candidates and will continue to answer the questions that are put in front of us but will not get into the politics of personal destruction that some others seem to be moving towards," said Chip Saltsman, who is managing Huckabee's campaign.
While most eyes will be on the interaction between Romney and Giuliani (and to a lesser extent Huckabee), it could be either Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) or former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) who play the biggest role in determining which of the frontrunners wins and loses tonight's debate.
McCain, who remains a major factor in New Hampshire, has shown a willingness in the past few weeks to aggressively contrast himself with his opponents on a variety of issues including experience and electability. Jill Hazelbaker, McCain's communications director, promised more of the same tonight. "He will emphasize his unmatched experience to be commander in chief and the fact that he is the only conservative who can beat Hillary Clinton," said Hazelbaker.
The question is not whether McCain goes on the offense but rather who bears the brunt of his attacks. He has been critical of Giuliani and Romney during the campaign; if he chooses to focus his fire on one or the other it could tip tonight's scales. (If McCain goes that route, we're betting he targets Romney; there is little love lost between the two men.)
As for Thompson, he appears to have settled into a somewhat strange strategy of rolling out major policy proposals but rarely engaging any of his rivals in a serious way. Thompson still believes himself to be the electable conservative in the field, though, and if Romney, Giuliani, Huckabee or even McCain seek to lay claim to that title Thompson may decide to wade in.
The debate starts tonight at 8 p.m. and runs for two hours. The Fix will be watching but not live blogging; we'll offer some thoughts in a post at the conclusion of the debate. Tomorrow we'll have our winners and losers from tonight's gathering.
In the meantime, feel free to offer your own predictions about what will happen tonight in the comments section below. Also, Channel '08 -- our video blog of the campaign -- has been keeping an eye on some of the most interesting and just plain wacky questions that have been submitted in advance of the debate; you can check that out here.
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