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CNN debate: What to watch for

By Paul Steinhauser and Peter Hamby, CNN
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Candy Crowley previews the CNN NH Debate
  • Expect front-runner Mitt Romney to be the target of his rivals
  • All eyes will be on Newt Gingrich to see if he can get his troubled campaign restarted
  • Undeclared candidate Michele Bachmann has opportunity to prove her bona fides
  • Debates give lesser-known candidates a chance to shine, woo potential converts

CNN hosts the first New Hampshire Republican presidential debate on Monday from Manchester at 8 p.m. ET. Follow all the issues and campaign news leading up to the debate on and @cnnpolitics on Twitter. Watch the debate on CNN TV, and mobile devices.

Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Seven Republicans will be on the stage Monday night at the CNN/WMUR/New Hampshire Union Leader presidential debate, but one candidate will likely be the center of attention.

Thanks to his standing at the top of the most recent horse race polls, his fundraising prowess and his top-flight campaign organization, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is generally considered the front-runner at this early point in the battle for the GOP nomination.

According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Monday morning, Romney -- who's making his second White House bid -- grabbed the support of 24% of Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is second with 20%, followed by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the rest of the field.

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But Romney's standing skyrockets to 35% -- 19 points ahead of the rest of the field -- when Palin and Giuliani, both of whom are still on the fence about the race, are taken out of the mix.

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Because of his front-runner status and nagging questions among conservatives about the health care law he instituted in Massachusetts, expect Romney to have a bull's-eye on his back tonight in the early primary state he needs to win if he hopes to be the nominee.

Here's what to watch for:

Pawlenty's target: Romneycare

For months, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has shied away from direct attacks on Romney but that's about to change. Pawlenty signaled over the weekend that he intends to step up his criticism of Romney in hopes of making inroads with fiscal conservatives who might be uncomfortable with the former Massachusetts governor.

The mild-mannered Pawlenty needs to start drawing the contrast: Despite hiring a blue-chip staff and spending significant time in the first-to-vote states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he remains a single-digit blip in most state and national polls.

So Pawlenty took sharp aim at Romney during a Fox News appearance Sunday, tying President Barack Obama's health care law to Romney's health care legislation in Massachusetts.

"The president's own words is that he patterned in large measure 'Obamacare' after what happened in Massachusetts," Pawlenty said. "What I don't understand is they both continue to defend it."

Pawlenty lumped both laws together with the invention of a new term: "Obamneycare."

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He repeated the criticism later Sunday at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. Expect to hear more health care talk from Pawlenty during Monday's debate.

The Gingrich relaunch

Romney will be the center of attention on Monday night, but former House Speaker Newt Gingrich might have the most to prove.

Gingrich's entire senior staff abandoned his campaign last week, citing the candidate's questionable work ethic and fundraising ability. And yet, Gingrich has vowed to march on with his bid; he now has to prove that he can effectively run campaign the way he wants.

Strong performances in nationally televised debates were always key to Gingrich's White House hopes. But in the wake of last week's campaign implosion, he must use Monday's forum not just to show off his presidential timbre. He has to demonstrate that his candidacy is still viable.

Ready for Ron?

Longtime Texas congressman Ron Paul is making his third bid for the White House. Paul has devoted and energetic followers, but he is thought to be somewhat out of the mainstream of GOP politics thanks to his calls to scale back U.S. military efforts abroad and his crusade to get rid of the Federal Reserve.

But in the aftermath of the 2010 midterms, which saw Republicans make gains up and down the ballot after running campaigns built on scaling back the size of government, Paul insists that Republicans are moving toward his proposals.

He pressed that message while on the campaign trail in New Hampshire on Friday.

"Some people say, 'Why don't you make your message more mainstream?' " he said. "Well, my message is becoming more mainstream."

Paul will try to make that case to a national audience tonight.

Bachmann's debut

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has yet to form an exploratory committee, but all signs point to a Republican presidential bid. She is expected to launch a campaign in Waterloo, Iowa -- the town in which she was born -- in the coming weeks.

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She has lined up veteran Republican strategists Ed Rollins and pollster Ed Goeas to help run her political operation. And Bachmann has already proved that she can stir the passions of conservative voters in a way that others in the Republican field cannot.

Bachmann is already a national figure thanks to her frequent cable news appearances and unabashed criticism of Obama. But establishment Republicans have questioned whether a three-term member of Congress with a meager legislative record and a tendency for over-the-top rhetoric can go toe-to-toe with some of the political veterans seeking the GOP nomination (not to mention the president of the United States).

Her supporters beg to differ. Conservative audiences in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have been impressed by her policy-heavy criticisms of Obama. She will have a chance to demonstrate her seriousness on Monday.

Hi, my name is Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum may be among the least-known of the seven people on the stage. But thanks to his staunch opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, the former two-term senator from Pennsylvania is popular with social conservatives who have played an influential role in choosing the GOP nominee.

Santorum often touts his social conservative credentials. Last week, he told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King, who will moderate the debate, "I talk the talk and I walk the walk, and I think that's what people are looking for, an authentic conviction conservative."

Though he has spent more time in the key early caucus and primary states than any of his rivals, Santorum remains in the low single digits in just about every national Republican horse race poll. The Monday debate could give Santorum an opportunity to increase his name identification by introducing himself to the country.

Santorum also has a more robust foreign policy record than any of the declared Republicans candidates thanks to his time in the Senate, something he might try to highlight on Monday.

Rising Cain

Herman Cain remains something of a curiosity to most voters, and Republican insiders largely discount his viability as a national candidate. But the former Godfather's Pizza CEO has started to gain traction among social conservatives and Tea Party activists in Iowa who are expected to have a major voice in the state's leadoff presidential caucuses.

Cain has also made frequent appearances in New Hampshire and he delivered a strong performance last month at a Republican debate in South Carolina, albeit one that lacked Romney and featured just five candidates.

Debates always give lesser-known candidates a chance to shine. With a knack for clever one-liners and confrontational barbs, he just might charm some Republicans getting their first look at the Republican field.

Jon who?

Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah who resigned to serve as Obama's ambassador to China, plans to make New Hampshire a lynchpin of his campaign.

Despite spending loads of time in the Granite State over the past month, Huntsman decided to take a pass on the debate, saying that he is not yet an official candidate and still putting the finishing touches on his potential campaign.

But Romney and Pawlenty both view Huntsman, with his executive resume and deep pockets, as a serious foe.

It's worth watching to see if any of the candidates jab at the absentee candidate over his service in the Obama administration or his decision to skip the debate.

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