Iowa debate could be final face-off for GOP candidates before first vote

It’s game time in Iowa.

With just under three weeks left until the Iowa caucuses, Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannYes, condemn Roseanne, but ignoring others is true hypocrisy Bachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate MORE is about to embark on a bus tour of all 99 Iowa counties, and Rick Perry plans to hit 44 cities. Mitt Romney is hoping Newt Gingrich’s surge in the state fades fast, while Gingrich is recouping from the sting of a top Iowa aide’s resignation. 

And Ron Paul is eyeing new poll results that show the first-in-the-nation caucuses could be his for the taking.

With the fate of a Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTom Arnold claims to have unreleased 'tapes' of Trump Cohen distances himself from Tom Arnold, says they did not discuss Trump US military indefinitely suspends two training exercises with South Korea MORE/Newsmax debate in limbo, a Thursday debate in Sioux City, Iowa, will likely be the last time all the GOP hopefuls square off before caucus-goers make their voices heard.

Bret Baier will moderate the debate, which is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. on Fox News.

Here are four things to watch for:

Does Newt Gingrich show signs of slipping?

When Gingrich supplanted Herman Cain atop the polls in mid-November, many questioned whether Gingrich’s surge — like that of Cain, Perry and Bachmann — would be a momentary blip, or whether the last-minute timing meant Gingrich would be the last man standing in the void to Romney’s right.

But six weeks is an eternity in presidential politics, and the attacks against Gingrich have been steadily mounting. Although he has held on to his lead so far, two new polls — one national from NBC News/The Wall Street Journal, the other in Iowa from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) — show Gingrich’s support slowly beginning to ebb. His support dropped among independent voters in the national poll, and the Iowa poll showed Paul gaining ground.

Gingrich fought off attacks on his marital record, personal income and policy positions while emerging with barely a scratch in Saturday’s debate. But his opponents will no doubt make a second go at cracking his armor.

Does Paul seize the moment?

The Texas congressman has long been expected to perform well in Iowa, where he has a loyal and energized network of supporters he can count on to show up to the caucus sites. 

“Our goal is obviously a top-three finish,” said A.J. Spiker, Paul’s Iowa vice chairman and a member of the Iowa GOP’s central committee.

But while a third-place finish for Paul would give him the justification he needs to carry on, a first- or second-place result would be the boon to his candidacy he’s been eagerly awaiting.

“He’s been gradually ticking upwards,” Spiker said. “The people in Iowa are getting more and more comfortable with Dr. Paul the more they know and the more they hear from him.”

The PPP poll released Tuesday showed Paul is within 1 point of Gingrich and 5 points ahead of Romney, whose super-PAC is spending millions attacking Gingrich in television ads in Iowa.

But traditional wisdom says that Paul, like Romney, has a natural cap of support within the GOP and will have trouble breaking through to the front of the pack. If Paul can grab attention during the debate and refrains from tangents on foreign policy or defense that make Republicans edgy, he could give Iowans a reason to grant him a late second look.

Will Gingrich stick to his vow not to attack?

The former House Speaker has pledged that his “campaign will be relentlessly positive” and promised not to air any 30-second attack ads against his Republican opponents. He doubled down in a letter asking supporters not to disparage the other candidates.

The line between pre-emptive attacks and defiant responses to attacks from others is growing increasingly thin for Gingrich. He said on Saturday that if Romney hadn’t been defeated by former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994, he wouldn’t be able to claim he isn’t a career politician. 

And his letter to supporters notwithstanding, Gingrich’s surrogates have shown little hesitation in dinging the man from Massachusetts.

“What we’re seeing from Mitt Romney and Boston is desperation and panic,” Linda Upmeyer, Gingrich’s Iowa chairwoman, told reporters in a campaign-organized conference call on Friday.

Further muddying the waters is the resignation on Tuesday of Gingrich’s new Iowa political director, whose comments to a focus group about Mormonism — Romney’s religion — hurting the former governor politically were deemed to violate Gingrich’s pledge.

Which candidate makes the first reference to a bet or $10,000?

The major take-away from Saturday’s debate was a bet that Romney offered Perry over the Texas governor’s allegation that Romney had altered a part of his book dealing with individual healthcare mandates.

Both Democrats and Romney’s GOP opponents pounced immediately on the cavalier offer of a $10,000 wager as evidence that Romney is out of touch with middle-class America’s economic woes.

But Thursday will be the first chance for the candidates to make an issue out of the bet in Romney’s presence. The sound bites and punch lines practically write themselves, but the candidates might avoid the gaffe for fear of collateral damage. 

If they give Romney a free pass, they could look magnanimous — or they could come off as weak for failing to pull the trigger. It was the latter for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who declined to say his “ObamneyCare” line to Romney’s face after debuting it days earlier in a national television interview.