: What to watch forThe Ames presidential debate
Target Bachmann: In the two months since the candidates last shared a stage, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has surged into the top tier and is widely regarded as the frontrunner in the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday. That’s a mixed blessing for Bachmann who will not only have to meet or exceed high expectations for her in tonight’s debate but will also have to do so while likely dodging barbs aimed at her from the likes of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and others. How Bachmann handles the attacks — if and when they come — will almost certainly be a major storyline coming out of Ames tonight. Running from the front is a major challenge and one Bachmann isn’t terribly familiar with; she needs to be a fast learner.
*** No more Mr. Nice Guy**: Pawlenty ducked a chance to attack former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at the debate in June and it cost him; his campaign went into a free-fall that he has struggled to turn around since. Pawlenty desperately needs to show signs of life in advance of the Ames Straw Poll, which amounts to a make or break moment for his campaign. The best (only?) way for him to do that is to, as our Post colleague Amy Gardner put it, come out swinging. The most obvious target for Pawlenty is Bachmann who is running ahead of him in Iowa and who has largely eclipsed him in recent months. But, attacking a woman — and the only woman on stage — in a debate setting is a dangerous game for Pawlenty that must be carefully considered. Perhaps Pawlenty bypasses a direct Bachmann attack — due to the peril associated with it — and tries to make up for lost time by slamming Romney, the race’s frontrunner. What Pawlenty must avoid is coming across as simply swinging wildly in all directions in hopes of landing a verbal blow. That would reek of desperation, which is a not a scent often associated with winners.
In absentia: In addition to the eight men and women on the stage tonight there will be two people standing just off camera (figuratively, not literally): Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Palin is rumored to be making a trip to the state tomorrow to attend the state fair (and trample on the attempts by her potential rivals to draw media coverage). Perry will stop in Iowa on Sunday, 24 hours or so after making clear his plans to run for president with stops in South Carolina and New Hampshire. CNN polling released today shows Perry and Palin running relatively strong in a national primary matchup against the current field so it’s easy to imagine that the debate moderators may well ask those on stage about the two people who still aren’t. None of the candidates — if they’re smart — will engage in handicapping the bids of people not there. But, it the field comes across as small or not particularly dynamic tonight, it gives the likes of Perry and.or Palin to step in and fill that charisma void.