Fox News Insider asked me for some brief thoughts on expectations for tonight’s Republican presidential debate here in Ames, Iowa, and on the straw poll on Saturday.  I predicted that tonight’s debate would be the real start to the primary season and that candidates would finally start throwing some punches at each other as the pressure builds to differentiate from the pack:

I’m looking for some different indicators at the two events this week. The events before the debate tonight show the candidates in a feisty mood, but still aiming most of their barbs at Barack Obama than each other. …

Of course, Pawlenty notoriously missed a chance to do the same in the previous nationally-televised debate, but so did everyone else. The GOP candidates focused on Obama rather than each other, apparently heeding Ronald Reagan’s “eleventh commandment” not to attack fellow Republicans. Unfortunately, Reagan’s not running in this primary, and neither is Obama. If the candidates start debating the experience and record of each other in tonight’s debate, then voters in Iowa will know they are truly engaged and fighting for their votes.

Saturday’s straw poll will test other skills of the hopefuls.  They will need to excel at retail politics and organizational skills rather than scoring debate points.  Even though each candidate will give a 15-minute speech to the crowd on Saturday, the votes will be won off the stage in handshakes, picture taking, and personal connections.  Michele Bachmann excels at retail politics, but none of the contenders are bad at it.  The difference might be approachability and the intangibles of authenticity, especially for Iowans making long treks from small communities like Ames.

This doesn’t emulate a caucus in that the votes are not counted by standing in someone’s corner, but are cast by written ballot all during the event.  That makes the Ames poll somewhat different than the January event that actually counts, and it means more strategic maneuvering.  Do candidates make their big push early and hope to lock in voters, or later to get the final sales pitch before the voters fill in the ballot and hope that their ballots have yet to be cast?  Ron Paul, whose organization should guarantee a pretty good finish in the straw poll, chose to speak second, a curious choice that could leave him out of mind in the final hour of voting.

Ames won’t make any candidates, especially with Rick Perry dramatically jumping into the race as the straw poll voting takes place.  It could break a few candidates, though, and this could be the first weeding-out point of the primary.  That makes the event – and its aftermath – worth watching.

Tina Korbe, Guy Benson, and I will be at the debate tonight and in the spin room afterward, talking with the campaigns and getting reaction on the scene.  Keep an eye out for us on Fox’s broadcast, as we may get asked to provide some of our own analysis, and of course keep checking Hot Air  and Townhall for our coverage of the debate!