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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.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 28, 2007; 5:55 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: Republicans Battle in Florida

Comments

What I want to ask is how did a Hillary Clinton staff member obtain "any opportunity" to get by CNN and/or the Clinton campaign to ask a question to the GOP candidates? Are CNN and the Hillary Clinton campaign both practicing "Don't ask, don't tell"? I'll "betcha" both will claim "ignorance". There may be enough evidence for a conviction.

Posted by: oharward | November 29, 2007 10:59 AM | Report abuse

2008 Presidential Election Weekly Poll

http://www.votenic.com

The Only Poll That Matters.
Results Posted Every Tuesday Evening.

Posted by: votenic | November 28, 2007 10:56 PM | Report abuse

Why is there no link on the wp.com page to the exploding story about Giuliani charging his trysts with his mistress to the NYC taxpayers? Not a bloody word - why?

This after 24-hour coverage of the Monica scandal - why the double-standard? Oh, I forgot, it's a neocon newspaper so they are protecting the neocon candidate. Fred Hiatt, I hear you loud and clear.

Time to turn to the competition, kids.

http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/election2008/2007-11-28-giuliani-bills_N.htm

Posted by: B2O2 | November 28, 2007 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Getting Romney to answer tough questions was like nailing jelly to the wall, wasn't it? (The thing about waterboarding was really a low point, whether you believe it should be allowed or not.) Romney just gives the impression of having been designed by an ad agency. It's like every answer and every position is carefully calculated not to offend rather than something he genuinely believes in.

I think I'll start calling him that: Governor Jelly.

Posted by: anon99 | November 28, 2007 10:28 PM | Report abuse

The eight Republican presidential hopefuls are squaring off in a challenge unlike anything they've faced as they step onto the stage for their party's first CNN/YouTube debate Wednesday in St. Petersburg, Florida. GOP hopefuls traded sharp jabs over immigration, taxes, and other to differentiate themselves.

Who won the CNN Youtube Republican Debate in Florida?

http://www.youpolls.com/details.asp?pid=1119


.

Posted by: PollM | November 28, 2007 9:12 PM | Report abuse

I am a die hard neocon. I am watching the debate and find an extraordinary difference between us and the Dems. The difference? The Republicans are actually answering questions on their positions without continued prodding and having their campaign manager answer it 2 weeks later. I may not agree with all their positions but at least I know where they stand. Which is more than can be said about Hillary or Barak the not so articulate, who speak for 5 minutes and say nothing.

Posted by: jaimielpn | November 28, 2007 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Rudy is having a tough night. Will this be his downfall? Because of immigration?

Debate liveblog.
http://political-buzz.com/2007/11/28/fl-youtube-republican-debate-liveblog/

Posted by: parkerfl | November 28, 2007 8:25 PM | Report abuse

If you should happen to read Huffington Post or Daily Kos, you will learn that one leading candidate is almost certainly leaving the fray. I say, "Awwwww." So long Rudy.

Posted by: cdavidj | November 28, 2007 6:54 PM | Report abuse

Although you didn't even bother to mention Ron Paul, that's better than demeaning him and all of his supporters by calling him a "sideshow" as Bill Schneider of CNN did. Nice to know he's at least playing into Paul's anti-establishment appeal.

Posted by: rlo6 | November 28, 2007 6:51 PM | Report abuse

I wonder what the other GOP'ers will have to say about Rudy moving funds around for his sexcapades.

Posted by: tbsrp_2000 | November 28, 2007 6:31 PM | Report abuse

I can hardly wait to hear the GOP candidates trashing Huckabee.

Boy oh boy, they are going to call him a liberal, a pro-life progressive and a big spender because he went ahead and added funds for schools to the Arkansas budget.

The Hilary-slayers slavish pandering to the GOP right is about to pay off!!!

Posted by: pach12 | November 28, 2007 6:30 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to hear if Chris has any thought on the similarities between Edwards 2004 run and what we're seeing from Huckabee in 2008.

Posted by: seli0052 | November 28, 2007 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Second correction:"...South Carolina and Lowcountry..." should be "South Carolina Upstate and Lowcountry..."

Darn...:-)

Posted by: Knathenak2 | November 28, 2007 6:12 PM | Report abuse

"...will the South Carolina Upstate and Lowcountry Republicans and cost the frontrunner South Carolina."

Correction: "...he will win over the South Carolina and Lowcountry Republicans and cost the frontrunner South Carolina." Sorry about that - typing too fast...

Posted by: Knathenak2 | November 28, 2007 6:11 PM | Report abuse

Huckabee stands an excellent chance of upending the leading candidates and coming out on top. The reason? Well, Guiliani and Romney will keep sniping at each other and eroding the faith of individuals planning to support them. One of them will definitely suffer more than the other, and Huckabee will usurp the #2 position. By the time they reach South Carolina, some "issue "regarding the candidate still in the #1 position will be exacerbated much to the delight of Huckabee supporters (and in a manner reminiscent of Bush's fallacious allegation that McCain had a "Black" daughter) will the South Carolina Upstate and Lowcountry Republicans and cost the frontrunner South Carolina. And, with SC being one of the frontloaded primaries, Huckabee will be in first place and start running away with the nomination as backloaded primary voters will start acting on their party ID (as they are wont to do) and assume Huckabee to be the Republican nominee.

The other scenario would be if the two destroy each other and Huckabee wins Iowa outright. Then, the rest of it (SC et al.) will commence - just a little earlier than planned.

Posted by: Knathenak2 | November 28, 2007 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Hopefully paul lays it to them again. Just like every other GOP debate. Let's see how huckabee's new front runner staus plays out. i think they now have three, like the d's.

Posted by: JKrishnamurti | November 28, 2007 6:01 PM | Report abuse

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