December 13, 2011
By Catalina Camia
The GOP presidential candidates meet tonight for the first of two pivotal debates ahead of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, as a surging Newt Gingrich leads the field and Mitt Romney goes on the attack.
In a campaign where the debates have recalibrated the race, tonight's forum in Des Moines and one Thursday in Sioux City have the potential to be important slugfests as candidates make their case to caucusgoers who'll cast the first votes for a Republican nominee. . .
Stumbles by his GOP rivals and strong debate performances have helped fueled (Newt) Gingrich's rise. He's bashed the news media and challenged the premise of questions, which plays well with conservatives. And while he's known to be mercurial, Gingrich has displayed a level of discipline that he himself admits was sometimes missing when he served in Congress.
"Gingrich is trying to … cast in the minds of the viewing public the idea that he is the ideal debater to go up against President Obama," says Ben Voth, chairman of the communications studies division and director of debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. . .
There's a danger, though, of being too feisty. A GOP debate in Las Vegas was marked by some highly personal sparring between Romney and Perry over illegal immigration, including one point where Romney put his hand on the Texas governor's shoulder.
"There are lots of ways to be a distinctive debater," says Voth. "It's negative to touch the other person."
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