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Debate Preview: Last Dance Before Iowa

Tonight’s debate in Sioux City, Iowa is the 14th in which all the major Republican candidates have participated since the first back in May. The campaign has undergone a number of major twists and turns in that time but after all the talking and the spinning, this event will be the last one before the Iowa caucus. That means that this will be the last chance for any of the contenders to change the minds of viewers of this latest episode of what has become the country’s favorite political reality show.

Once again the focus will be on Newt Gingrich who has been leading the national polls for weeks. With the release of a Rasmussen poll today that, as Alana noted, showed Mitt Romney overtaking Gingrich, there is a chance that the former speaker’s bubble may finally be bursting. This debate will therefore be closely watched not merely for the usual question of who makes the biggest mistake but as a sign of whether Gingrich is finally cracking under the pressure of attacks from Romney and the rest of the field. Since the debates have largely shaped this race, this last one before the votes start being counted will be crucial.

Despite our almost obsessive focus on each poll that comes out, the fact remains that we don’t really know whether each snapshot of public opinion at a given moment will translate into votes at the caucus in January. With more scrutiny bringing what Romney aptly called Gingrich’s “goofy” side and with more conservative thought leaders, like National Review trying to alert GOP voters to what they rightly believe is Gingrich’s fatal weakness in a general election matchup with President Obama, it could be that Gingrich’s momentum is being halted.

While this may not translate into big gains for Romney, at this point it must be considered that any result in Iowa other than a Gingrich victory will give the former Massachusetts governor a big boost heading into the New Hampshire primary days later. Considering that Gingrich seems to be ignoring the ground game in Iowa in the comings that will mean it is absolutely essential that he give another strong performance tonight. It may also be necessary for him to ignore Romney  — whose support is relatively stable — and concentrate on undermining Ron Paul’s since the libertarian extremist may pose the greatest threat to Gingrich.

Given the volatility of the polls, no matter what Romney does, Gingrich cannot afford to stumble. This last dance before the caucus could make or break Gingrich’s presidential hopes.