Here are five things to watch for:
1. Rattling Newt
Mr. Romney and his rivals are no doubt plotting ways to get under Mr. Gingrich’s skin. The question is: will it work?
Mr. Gingrich, the former House speaker, is an able debater — and he knows it. In addition to his command of issues and facts, Mr. Gingrich is particularly skilled at defusing a difficult question or a tense moment with humor, often at the expense of the moderator or the media at large.
But his twin Achilles heels are his willingness to spout off theories or ideas that later become controversial (child janitors?) and his tendency to get snappish and testy when pushed to a place that he doesn’t want to go, like his support for individual health care mandates.
Now that he’s the front-runner in the race, Mr. Gingrich will become the target of rivals hoping to exploit his weaknesses even as they try to minimize the opportunities he has to shine.
2. Romney’s Cool
For Mr. Romney, the big question is whether he can keep his cool. During more than a dozen debates and forums, Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, was the calm, steady, professional (adult?) presence in the room. It helped earn him praise from the pundits if not wild applause from the audiences or voters.
But just as it did four years ago, Mr. Romney’s tenuous dominance of the field has been slipping away from him. Mr. Gingrich is not only leading by double digits in Iowa, where Mr. Romney has not campaigned hard, but is also gaining in New Hampshire, where Mr. Romney must win. The former speaker is also leading in South Carolina.
So the thing to watch in Mr. Romney is whether he crosses a line that could backfire with voters. Does he attack in personal ways, for example by bringing up Mr. Gingrich’s three marriages? Does his seem to lose his cool when rivals or moderators ask about whether he’s a flip-flopper?
Mr. Romney’s campaign believes he is still in a very good position to win the nomination. But debates can be dangerous, even for someone as practiced as Mr. Romney.
Read the rest What to Watch for in Tonight’s Debate – NYTimes.com.