MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (AFP) – Republicans aiming to topple President Barack Obama in 2012 will tackle each other Monday with their first big televised debate and a chance to grab national attention.
Seven potential or declared White House candidates will debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, where Republican hopefuls are already campaigning eight months ahead of the first in a grueling series of state primaries.
With former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney the firm frontrunner for the party nomination, rivals including Tea Party favorite Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and conservative former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty are expected to come out fighting.
The stakes are high, since candidates not only want national recognition, but need to impress voters in tiny New Hampshire, where a good or poor showing in February’s primary can crucially influence momentum heading into similar contests in other, much bigger states.
Republicans believe that Obama is vulnerable towards the end of his first term over the nation’s still anemic recovery from recession and persistent high unemployment.
But in an election season where the Republican Party faces internal tensions between moderates and the Tea Party wing, the nomination race is proving unpredictable.
One of the best known figures in Monday’s debate, former speaker Newt Gingrich, saw his campaign threaten to unravel last week when much of his staff resigned.
With so much volatility, some predict the relatively unknown Herman Cain — the only African American candidate for the Republican nomination — could snatch a major boost from the debate, which will air live on CNN.
The pizza entrepreneur has used forceful speaking skills to come from nowhere against the more established politicians and attract an enthusiastic and growing following. The latest Gallup poll, released Sunday, puts him a surprise third in the Republican field.
Other challengers at the debate include libertarian Texan Congressman Ron Paul and socially conservative former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, both of them likely to contribute to a heated discussion.
During a campaign stop Sunday in a remote corner of New Hampshire, Pawlenty promised Monday’s clash would help bring definition to the Republican pool.
“We’re going to be talking about who we are,” he said. “There’s going to be differences between Republican candidates.”
Apart from hammering Obama, one thing most of the candidates might agree on is ganging up against Romney who in the new Gallup poll leads with 24 percent of Republican support.
Although the ex-governor is seen as the most heavyweight challenger, with the experience of a failed 2008 bid under his belt, critics question his charisma.
He also shoulders the possibly deadlier burden, from a Republican perspective, of having introduced a universal health care plan to Massachusetts that looks much like the controversial measure enacted nationally by Obama.
Pawlenty set the tone Sunday with repeated digs at “ObamneyCare” — a new variant on Republicans’ derisive term “ObamaCare” for the federal program.
The biggest elephant in the room during the debate will be Sarah Palin, another Tea Party figure and arguably the best known Republican in the country.
The former Alaskan governor, who so far has failed to appeal much beyond her wildly passionate core support, is flirting with a presidential run, but has yet to declare and will not participate Monday. Gallup puts her second with 16 percent.
Another non-participant is Jon Huntsman, who until recently was the US ambassador to China and is now seen as a potential dark horse candidate for the Republican nod. He campaigned last week in New Hampshire and says he could declare within two weeks.
If they needed any more motivation to perform well Monday, Republican debaters got some from the fresh Gallup poll: by 2:1 supporters say they are ready to change their minds about whom they will pick.