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The final GOP debate before Iowa: what each candidate needs to do

It’s anybody’s guess who will win the Iowa caucuses. In Thursday’s debate, each candidate has a final chance to impress Iowa Republicans – and the rest of America.

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GOP presidential candidates, from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, of Minn., stand together prior to their Republican debate, on Dec. 10, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Eric Gay/AP

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Thursday is a red-letter day in the seemingly interminable run-up to the Iowa caucuses: the last debate before Hawkeye State Republicans head to their local precinct meetings on Jan. 3. 

Seven Republicans take the stage Thursday night in Sioux City, Iowa, at 9 p.m., Eastern time – the 13th debate of the season. For each one, the stakes are high. A new Rasmussen poll of Iowa Republicans taken Tuesday shows Mitt Romney now in the lead in Iowa and Newt Gingrich down to second place, losing 12 percentage points since the last Rasmussen poll a month ago.  

But an InsiderAdvantage poll taken Monday has former House Speaker Gingrich in the lead with 27 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul second with 17 percent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry in third with 13 percent, and former Massachusetts Governor Romney at 12 percent.

Polling experts warn against comparing one company’s survey against another’s. So, bottom line: It’s anybody’s guess who will win Iowa. In Thursday’s debate, each candidate has a final chance to impress Iowa Republicans – and the rest of America. Almost as important are viewers in the other early nominating states – New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.

Here are the challenges and opportunities for each candidate:

Newt Gingrich: The mercurial former House speaker is facing a barrage of incoming from fellow candidates, establishment Republicans, and conservative media outlets, all warning that if he wins the nomination, he could well hand the election to President Obama.

“Republicans should have the good sense to reject a hasty marriage to Newt Gingrich, which would risk dissolving in acrimony,” the editors of the National Review asserted Wednesday on their website. They declined to endorse anyone else but suggested consideration of Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Ouch.

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Gingrich needs to keep his cool, turn in another solid debate performance, and maybe even get off another zinger against one of his top competitors. His takedown of Romney in the last debate belongs on the all-time list, when he said, “The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.”

Also, no weird ideas.

Mitt Romney: After a subpar performance in the last debate – see $10,000 bet – Romney needs not just to avoid mistakes, but also to get back on his game as an experienced executive ready to tackle the nation’s problems. He also needs to show a little bite, as Republicans are looking for someone to take the fight to Mr. Obama next November.

The fact that the National Review has so far declined to endorse him – after doing so four years ago – is a sign he has work to do. Not that the National Review is the be-all and end-all of conservative thought, but Romney’s poll numbers, stuck in the mid-20s, show that he hasn’t impressed enough Republicans to seal the deal.

Ron Paul: The well-organized, well-funded libertarian has a shot at winning the Iowa caucuses, and as the other candidates pound away at each other, Representative Paul’s job is to keep doing what he’s doing: Be a happy warrior, stay thoughtful and consistent, and avoid the kind of answers that make him look out of the mainstream. (Think legalization of heroin.) Look for a few punches at Gingrich and Romney and maybe even Governor Perry, all of whom are close competitors in Iowa.

A top finish in Iowa puts Paul in position to do well in the New Hampshire primary a week later. He’s already polling in third place there. But he’s unlikely to win – even though Granite Staters have a strong libertarian streak – and so in a way he’s Romney’s best friend: As long as multiple candidates split the anti-Romney vote, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts is in good shape.

Rick Perry: The Texas governor had a strong, relatively pause-free performance in last Saturday’s debate, and he needs to be flawless again Thursday night. Perry’s early fundraising success means he has money to burn, and he’s burning it with TV ads. Some voters are giving him a second look.

Rick Santorum: He’s one of the few candidates who hasn’t surged, despite consistently solid debate performances. As National Review points out, his lack of executive experience weighs against him. But the former senator from Pennsylvania could do well in Iowa, given his profile as a social conservative. Iowa’s conservative Evangelicals are reliable caucus-goers.

Michele Bachmann: She won the Iowa straw poll in mid-August, and it’s been downhill since. A series of gaffes have scared off many Iowa Republicans, and she’s running on fumes financially. But she got a bit of her mojo back in the last debate, and, like Mr. Santorum, she appeals to social conservatives. She needs to do well again Thursday night.

Jon Huntsman: The former Utah governor is back in the mix. He was left out of the last debate because of low poll numbers, but Fox News is including him Thursday night. Even though he’s not competing in the Iowa caucuses, he needs the national exposure to maintain momentum in New Hampshire, where he has put all his marbles.

The last three polls of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters put Mr. Huntsman in low double digits. It’s a start. The fact that registered independents are allowed to vote in New Hampshire on Jan. 10 is good for Huntsman, who is positioned as a moderate. Voters tired of the pyrotechnics around some of the other candidates may decide that the steady, experienced, unflashy Huntsman is a good alternative.

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