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Debate Preview: All Eyes on Huck

JOHNSTON, Iowa -- The Fix -- as well as every other political reporter in the known universe -- is packed into a tiny and increasingly chilly room here at the headquarters of Iowa Public Television awaiting the Republican debate, which is slated to start at 1 pm central time.

With just 22 days remaining before the Iowa caucuses, there's no downplaying of the importance of this debate -- the last gathering of all the candidate before Iowans vote.

At the center of the expectations game is former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.).

Huckabee has surged to the lead in Iowa over the last few weeks, eclipsing former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) and forcing the former Massachusetts governor to go on the attack on television earlier this week. Expect Romney to keep up the attack today as he seeks to blunt Huckabee's momentum and reclaim some of his own.

For the vast majority of these debates, Huckabee has been a minor player -- content to push his compassionate conservative agenda and deliver the sort of one liners that have fueled his rise. His challenge is different this time; he will be at the center of the debate round and could well face difficult questions from not only Romney but others hoping to make a move in Iowa most notably former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.).

How Huckabee fares is is some ways out of his hands. The barbs are sure to come from Romney -- and, in all probability, Thompson as well. Do Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani join in on the Huckabee bashing or do they jump to his defense.

For Giuliani, at least, a strong Huckabee performance today and continued strength in Iowa are in the long term interests of Hizzoner. If Huckabee can derail Romney's early state strategy in Iowa, it greatly increased Giuliani's chances at the nomination. So, in other words, we'd be stunned if Giuliani took after Huckabee today.

McCain is a more complex question. He personally dislikes Romney but knows he needs to exceed expectations in Iowa in order to have a realistic chance of winning in New Hampshire -- his make or break state. McCain's campaign was the only one to publicly condemn Romney's ad against Huckabee, which could give us some indication of the candidate's likelihood of ganging up on the former Arkansas governor.

We'll be back after the debate ends with our rundown. Then tomorrow morning we'll have our winners and losers from today's proceedings in this space.

You can check out a live discussion of the debate online by clicking here.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 12, 2007; 1:35 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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