GOP debate preview: Will anyone emerge as an alternative to Mitt Romney?

Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney makes his first appearance in a GOP debate Monday night with his lead in the polls not beyond reach. How the rest of the field may jockey for position.

Carlos Osorio/AP
Republican presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney meets with Krysalis Fit CEO Jennine Hynes at Bizdom U, in Detroit, on Thursday, June 9. Bizdom U is a business development center to help entrepreneurs start up businesses in the state.

All eyes will be on Mitt Romney Monday night as he makes his first appearance in a debate of Republican presidential candidates.

The former governor of Massachusetts is building a lead as the frontrunner in the GOP field. The latest USA Today/Gallup poll, released Monday, puts him at 24 percent, up from 17 percent in late May and eight points ahead of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has yet to announce her plans. Among those who are running, the next strongest competitor in Gallup is businessman Herman Cain, with 9 percent.

But at 24 percent, Romney’s lead is not commanding. So the race is on among the rest of the field to become the Romney alternative.

Seven candidates will take the stage Monday at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH, between 8 and 10 p.m. EDT: Romney, Mr. Cain, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

For three, this will be their first debate of the cycle – Romney, Congresswoman Bachmann, and Mr. Gingrich. One of the participants in the first debate, held May 5 in South Carolina, did not qualify for this debate: former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. CNN will air the debate.

Mr. Pawlenty previewed one line of attack against Romney on “Fox News Sunday,” conflating Romney’s reform of the Massachusetts health-care system with President Obama’s federal reform.

“You don't have to take my word for it,” Mr. Pawlenty said. “You can take President Obama's word for it. President Obama said that he designed ObamaCare after RomneyCare, and basically made it ObamneyCare.”

Establishment Republicans view Pawlenty as having top-tier potential in the GOP field – and the potential to beat Mr. Obama in 2012. But so far the pleasant but uncharismatic Minnesotan has not caught fire; the new Gallup poll has him at only 6 percent. He has plenty of time to catch on, but the question is when and how.

Battle for top conservative

Another element to watch for Monday night is the battle for top conservative. Competing in that “primary within a primary” are Cain, Bachmann, and Santorum.

“Bachmann, Santorum, and Cain all have something to prove, and they’re going to try to break out,” says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. “All of them have to do fundraising, and with potential donors watching, each of them wants to have a good debate.”

• Cain, the former CEO of Godfather Pizza, has caught on as a tea party favorite following his standout performance in the last debate. He offered himself as the anti-politician – he has never held elective office – with a can-do attitude and record of success in business. But he has since stumbled in interviews over his mastery of issues, particularly on foreign policy, and so he needs to show that he’s ready for prime time.

• Bachmann, the leader of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress, is a firebrand who knows how to command an audience. But she has also stumbled on facts in some public appearances, and needs to show that she can credibly go toe to toe with Romney – and eventully Obama – if she is to break out as the conservative alternative.

• Santorum was most known as a senator for his hard-line conservative views on social issues, and is trying to broaden his image as an all-purpose conservative. His national Gallup numbers showed a bump up from 2 percent in late May to 6 percent in mid-June. So he’s trending positively, but political observers wonder if he can overcome a sometimes gruff demeanor.

Can Gingrich rebuild his viability?

Gingrich would have belonged in the race for Top Conservative, but his campaign is in free fall after the mass resignation of most of his staff last week over his unorthodox strategy. Most pundits have written him off as a viable contender, but Gingrich is soldiering on mostly on his own. Still, all eyes will be on him to see if the verbally skilled but undisciplined former speaker can possibly say anything that rebuilds his credibility as a candidate.

Congressman Paul, who ran four years ago and retains a loyal following of libertarian-leaning voters, can be counted on to break with Republican orthodoxy on such matters as US involvement in foreign wars and drug policy, if he’s given the opportunity. But he is likely to remain a boutique candidate in the race with no chance of winning the nomination.

For Romney, the stakes are not as high. He has already established himself as the early, if not forbidding, frontrunner.

“The other candidates might take shots at him, and he has to be prepared to handle that in the way he deflects attacks without being divisive,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “He can reinforce his image as presidential.”

Three who declined to debate

There are three candidates who were invited to take part in the debate, but declined: Ms. Palin, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (who has strongly hinted that he’ll run again), and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Of those, analysts say Mr. Huntsman’s nonparticipation is probably a mistake. He is almost certainly running, and has already announced that he will not compete in Iowa, the first nominating state. That makes New Hampshire especially important for him, but he still has little profile there.

In the Granite State, where polls show Romney dominating the field heading toward the crucial GOP primary early next year, some Republican political figures are less concerned with who’s on top than what the candidates are saying about the issues.

“Romney is the clear front-runner, no doubt,” says John Stephen, the Republican nominee for governor last November. “But front-runner status means nothing right now. This is not about who’s leading in the polls. The people of New Hampshire are wise, and they’re going to wait and pick a candidate who can most effectively take us down a fiscally responsible path.”

Mr. Stephen, a consultant to states on Medicaid reform, says he hasn’t decided whom to back. “I’m looking for whoever has the strongest economic message,” he says.

See also the following Q&A profiles of Republicans who have declared their candidacy for president:

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