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CNN debate: 5 things that could shape the race

By Mark Preston, CNN Senior Political Editor
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GOP candidates square off
  • Early polling shows Republicans aren't totally enamored with the field
  • Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani, who haven't announced, poll high among GOP voters
  • Front-runner Mitt Romney must weather expected attacks and counterpunch effectively
  • Don't be surprised if Ron Paul says, "I told you so"

CNN hosts the first New Hampshire Republican presidential debate Monday night from Manchester at 8 p.m. ET. Follow all the issues and campaign news about the debate on and @cnnpolitics on Twitter. Watch the debate on CNN TV, and mobile devices. And participate with your questions on the live blog on the CNN Political Ticker.

Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Newt Gingrich is on the ropes, Tim Pawlenty's dropped the gloves, and Mitt Romney will be in the middle.

It doesn't matter that Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani and Jon Huntsman decided to stay home.

The game is on.

No more hedging statements, exploratory committees, or one more discussion with the family before deciding to jump into the water headfirst. The final boxes have been checked -- save for Michele Bachmann. For the six others, the race for the GOP presidential nomination begins Monday night at the CNN/WMUR/New Hampshire Union Leader debate.

Voters will be looking for the candidates to deliver answers on the pressing issues facing the nation, and Republican viewers will be watching for a candidate to take on President Obama in 2012.

Early polling shows GOP voters are not exactly enamored with the current field. Perhaps that would change if Palin and Giuliani decided to run.

Huntsman told my CNN colleague Candy Crowley the other day that he is on the verge of making it official. He will run for president. An announcement is expected in the coming days.

The former Utah governor sees the lack of enthusiasm with the current field as an opening, as long as GOP primary voters don't punish him for serving as Obama's ambassador to China.

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Candy Crowley previews the CNN NH Debate

It is very early in the contest, but still much is at stake: for the "front-runner," the "perceived alternative," the "wounded," the "I told you so," the "unknowns," and "those waiting in the wings."

Here are five things to look for Monday night that will help shape the race for the Republican presidential nomination:

Pawlenty vs. Romney: For months, we in the media have speculated that Tim Pawlenty is setting himself up to be the alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney, a fellow former governor. While Romney must battle criticism that he is a flip-flopper, Pawlenty is trying to overcome the perception that he lacks the edge needed to be a strong leader.

Pawlenty showed the sharpness of his political knife Sunday, when he accused Romney of devising the framework for Obama's health care law. And he coined a new word for the political dictionary: "Obamneycare."

Pawlenty will try to show that he not only has the policy chops, but is politically tough and savvy, an important trait some GOP voters will be looking for in their nominee to take on Obama. But Pawlenty must be careful he does not overreach in his criticism.

Romney, who will be center stage, must successfully weather the expected attacks, punch back and effectively promote his CEO creds. Romney, a successful businessman, is basing his campaign largely on his ability to fix the economy -- the No. 1 issue facing this nation. Monday night, he will have the opportunity to sell it to a national audience and try to distinguish himself from his rivals.

The wounded: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a politically questionable decision to take a Mediterranean cruise during this critical building period of his newly launched campaign. When Gingrich returned, his staff fired him, because they did not think he was committed to the campaign.

There is no question that Gingrich, a former college professor, is an intellect. He is a policy-making machine, but the former speaker needs to show tonight that he is unshakable during a time of crisis, and convince primary voters that the staff resignations are an inside-baseball story and he has the CEO qualities needed to run the nation.

Expect Gingrich to follow Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment, which dictated "thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican," and instead focus his criticism squarely on Obama. Gingrich's goal is to try to convince GOP voters he is the best candidate to defeat the president in 2012 and the most experienced to deal with the woes that face the nation.

"I told you so": At this time four years ago, Ron Paul was a minor candidate, at odds with his own party, who was running a presidential campaign on a shoestring budget. Times have changed, and so has Paul's status in the GOP field. Instead of polling in the low single digits, he is now in the mid- to high-single digits, is raising money at a healthy pace, and is no longer considered a fringe candidate.

What happened? Well, his message seems to have resonated beyond his eclectic group of supporters made up of young adults, anti-war activists and libertarian-minded Americans. He says the country is embracing his views, especially his opposition to the wars and calls for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan.

Tonight, Paul will be the same Paul that stood on this same stage in Manchester four years ago, except this time, he has more support and more money. But his message will be the same -- and don't be surprised if he says "I told you so."

The unknowns: Rick Santorum once held a senior Republican leadership position in the Senate, Michele Bachmann is a member of Congress, and Herman Cain is a successful businessman-turned-talk show host. Each is well known in social conservative circles and is vying for the support of this key voting bloc.

Yet these three Republicans are not household names. They face the difficult task Monday night of striking a balance -- delivering red-meat rhetoric at the same time they're introducing themselves to a broader audience.

Bachmann, Cain and Santorum are competing for the same voters and thus risk splitting the vote three ways. Monday night, each will make a targeted pitch claiming to be the true social conservative, in the hopes of cementing that status with this important voting bloc.

Waiting in the wings: What will they say during and after the debate? Will Sarah Palin post a statement on Facebook criticizing the policies put forward by the debate participants? Perhaps praise them? Will Giuliani weigh in on the debate or simply ignore it? And will Huntsman, who is just days away from joining the field, pick apart his future rivals' answers?

Betting money is that Giuliani remains mum, Huntsman offers a critique, and Palin will have something to say -- on her Facebook page.

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