I’m not sure whether to feel happy, disappointed, or relieved that the Republican candidates will hold their last major televised debate of the year on Fox News Channel at 9 pm ET.  The debate will take place in Sioux City, Iowa, where our Townhall colleague Guy Benson is on hand to provide local reporting of the event.  With Donald Trump leaving the December 27th Newsmax-ACU debate that would only have aired on Ion TV and Internet streaming, this is the last significant opportunity for the Republican candidates to reach large number of Iowa caucus-goers in one shot to make their final pitch — and to toss a few beanballs at their opponents.

Des Moines Register’s chief political analyst Jennifer Jacobs sets up the stakes well:

In tonight’s nationally televised Republican Party debate in Sioux City, every available line of attack will be exploited, politics watchers say. Few pieces of opposition research will go unused. The most passionate closing arguments will be made.

For some of these candidates, it may be their last time on the stage as a presidential candidate. For one, it could mark the point where he or she began the serious business of becoming the Republican nominee — and possibly the next president of the United States.

“After countless months, in some cases years, of hard work and investment of key resources, this debate will go down as the most important two hours of the campaign for Iowa,” predicted Republican strategist David Polyansky of New York City.

This also sets up what might really be the most important debates in Iowa … the holiday conversations between friends and family members:

“What ultimately will be more important than the debate will be the conversations people have with family and friends over Christmas,” said Iowa caucuses historian Jeff Stein, “so it’s very important for candidates to go into the Christmas weekend on a high note.”

Which candidate has the most potential upside from this debate?  In my column for The Fiscal Times, I argue that it’s Rick Perry:

Which candidate, then, can fill what looks to be an opening to the right of Gingrich and Romney?  At the moment, that candidate may be Rick Perry.  In the Insider Advantage and ARG polls, Perry has more than doubled his support in the last couple of weeks, going from 5 percent to 13 percent in both.  The Texas governor has launched a “saturation” ad buy in Iowa, spending over a million dollars in the three markets over the next couple of weeks on radio and TV spots.  After a disastrous series of debates, Perry has suddenly become pretty good in the format, if not great.  He got the better of Mitt Romney in Des Moines on Saturday, and stayed energetic and focused throughout the event.

After tonight’s debate, Perry has fully committed to retail politicking in Iowa.  For the next two weeks, Perry will make 42 appearances and travel over a thousand miles to press the flesh and remind people of his record on jobs and fighting Washington, a record that got buried under his gaffes for most of October and November.  As anyone who has covered Perry in person can attest, he is a master of retail politicking, turning on the down-home charm and connecting with social conservatives.  It’s a strength that has served Perry well in Texas, perhaps the main reason why he’s never lost an election in his career.

The campaign’s current dynamics will help Perry in tonight’s debate.  Everyone on stage will attack Romney and Gingrich as insufficiently conservative, and the two front-runners will mainly attack each other.  Romney made a tactical error in going after Perry in the last debate, allowing Perry to rise to the occasion and resulting in the awkward $10,000-bet moment, so Romney won’t make that mistake a second time.  Perry’s poll bounce might bring fresh attacks from Michele Bachmann, who has also risen back into low double-digits in the ARG and Insider Advantage polls, and she has scored points off of Perry in the past.  Bachmann needs to get voters away from Gingrich more than she does Perry, however, so most of her attention will be elsewhere, and the same can be said for Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman.

With Gingrich slipping and Romney still among the frontrunners, it’s very possible that Perry can spend the debate focusing exclusively on his jobs record and his fight against Washington on energy production, two areas of domestic policy near and dear to Iowa Republicans.  A bad performance would probably mean that Perry can cancel his Christmas campaign and enjoy the holidays in Austin, but he has improved his debate performances steadily over the last several weeks.  Keep an eye on him tonight, and then on the polling in the next week.  There’s room for him to move up, if he can pull off another good performance.

How about the other candidates?

  • Mitt Romney — He needs to ignore attacks from lower-tier candidates and deny them any ability to get extra screen time by dialoguing with them.  He excelled at staying above the fray until about a month ago, and he’s not doing terribly well in exchanging blows.  Romney needs to get back to looking presidential.
  • Newt Gingrich — The only thing Gingrich needs to do here that doesn’t involve being his usual brilliant debater self is to make the argument that he can go the distance, and that his record is more conservative than it isn’t.  I’d expect Fox to focus a little less on Newt-centric questions than ABC did on Saturday, but the same issues will come up, and if Newt can knock them down like he did on Saturday, he should be fine.
  • Michele Bachmann — Like Perry, her numbers have started coming up a little, too.  She had a very good debate on Saturday, especially with the “Newt Romney” zinger.  She needs to stay centered, not get hyperbolic, and pepper both frontrunners on their heterodoxies.
  • Rick Santorum — He also had a good debate on Saturday.  Santorum has spent the most time in Iowa in retail politicking, and he needs to make an emotional connection to Iowa voters in tonight’s debate.  He also needs to go after Romney and Gingrich in a calm and detailed manner.  If he can do that, he might get some momentum.
  • Ron Paul — Like Gingrich, he just needs to do what he usually does in debates.  He’s going to go after everyone on stage, of course, as he usually does, and his base of support will love it.
  • Jon Huntsman — He missed the cut for CNN’s debate on Saturday, and I’m not sure why he’s bothering to come tonight.  Huntsman seems to have gained momentum in New Hampshire, and he’s not going to be spending a lot of time in Iowa after this debate.  Why not just have an event tonight in New Hampshire instead?  Huntsman needs to poke more holes in Romney than in Gingrich, and since he’s playing for New Hampshire, that’s what he should do.