Republican presidential race begins in earnest 

Was it really only a few months ago when President Barack Obama seemed suddenly to have matured into an authentic national leader by virtue of his steely decision-making in the hours leading up to the Navy SEAL raid that took out Osama bin Laden?

At what will likely be viewed as the high point of his presidency, Obama looked like a formidable candidate for a second term. But then came the debt-ceiling crisis, and the president’s approval rating has now sunk to a new low.

In view of these developments, the nine Republican presidential aspirants preparing to meet onstage in tonight’s debate can be forgiven for displaying a new spring in their step.

Even so, these GOP challengers who face off in the Iowa debate two days before the Ames Straw Poll must not forget that unexpected events may yet transform today’s bruised and battered Obama into the guy taking the oath of office on Inauguration Day 2013.

However, the Ames debate is the first truly consequential gathering of the 2012 presidential campaign. As such, it is a make-or-break opportunity for most of the candidates onstage, especially former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has put tremendous time and resources into Iowa. A poor performance tonight could be a crippling blow to a candidacy that has yet to find a defining voice.

Similarly, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman must somehow find a way to make Iowa Republicans take serious notice.

And Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, needs to get his message across effectively to Iowans who don’t share the more novel enthusiasms of his core followers.

Then there are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and upstart challenger Rep. Michele Bachmann, now first and second in the polls.

Romney has the most to lose tonight but is perhaps least likely to do so, being a highly polished performer who benefits from the GOP’s odd inclination to hand its presidential nominations to candidates because “it’s their turn.”
For her part, Bachmann’s biggest worry won’t even be on the stage. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a savvy campaigner with solid credentials among economic and social conservatives, years of executive experience, and a booming state economy brimming with new jobs. Old hands doubt that Bachmann can counter Perry’s appeal among GOP conservatives.

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