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By Jay Cost

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Debate Predictions

Tomorrow I am going to offer another analysis of "who hit whom." I did this for the last GOP debate, and I thought it gave us some purchase on how the candidates view the race.

Today, I want to lay down some predictions on how the attacks are going to come. My basic intuition is that - whereas in the previous debate, Giuliani received most of the hits - he will probably not be attacked as much today. Instead, look for Romney and Thompson to go after Huckabee. Both of them rightly perceive the former Arkansas governor as a threat.

Generally - what we should see today is part of the final act of this cycle's Republican drama: who shall be the social conservative alternative to Giuliani? This is essentially a battle between Romney, Huckabee, and Thompson. For most of the campaign season, it appeared as though Romney was the presumptive anti-Rudy. At least as far as the polls go, this position is now a toss-up between Huckabee and Romney - with Thompson a marginal player. My guess is that most of the attacks will come from Romney and Thompson - and they will be directed at Huckabee.

I will be particularly interested in two elements of this interaction. First, will Romney's attacks on Huckabee be artful? As I have argued before, I think the Romney campaign has a better grasp of the science of politics than it does the art. Today, I think Romney's hits will have to be dexterous to be effective with Iowan viewers. We know Romney can hit Huckabee. Can he hit him well? We might not get an immediate answer to this question because the Washington insiders who report and analyze these debates tend to relish the hits more than the voters in flyover country. So, we might see something akin to the first Bush v. Gore debate: what might initially be scored as a success by the pundits turns out to be a failure.

Second, how will Huckabee handle the religion issue? The question about Jesus and Satan that he posed to Zev Chafets of the New York TImes Magazine might have been innocent and accidental - but it could just as easily have been purposeful. This leaves me wondering whether and, if so, how Huckabee intends to use religion to marginalize Romney. My guess is that he lays off the religion issue - but that he does so in a way that is a de facto shot. For instance, if asked if Mormonism is part of Christianity, I would expect Huckabee to say something like, "I don't know." Generally, look for Huckabee's attacks on Romney - if there are any at all - to be passive aggressive.

Ultimately, with Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson caught up with one another - McCain will likely go unassailed today - as was the case last time. But this social conservative squabble also means that Giuliani could escape most of the hits, too. He is not really a target right now.

Accordingly, this debate should be very liberating for both Giuliani and McCain. I expect them both to do well. Not only will they likely have nobody attack them - they have fewer audience constraints, too. Romney, Huckabee, and Thompson are actually playing to two audiences. On the one hand, they have to court the undecided Iowa Republicans tuning in (and my guess is that this debate will grab their attention). On the other hand, they also have to court the Washington journalists/pundits who are going to summarize the debate for the rest of the nation. Giuliani and McCain are really just playing to the latter group - as they stand no chance in Iowa.

-Jay Cost