On the scene in NH: What "they're" saying about tonight's GOP debate

MANCHESTER, NH — CNN hosts the first Republican presidential debate tonight at 8 p.m., and six official candidates plus the as-yet-unannounced Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) will be here at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, NH, to participate.

Some folks speculate tonight will be a pile-on on perceived frontrunner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. CNN clearly expects Romney to be at the center of attention, as well. The “hometown favorite” will occupy the center podium when the candidates take the stage tonight, and CNN senior vice president David Bohrman says that placement was intentional.

“We decided the order,” Bohrman said. “It occurred to us that he’s kind of the ‘hometown candidate.’ … We thought it would provide for the best television viewing.”

Perhaps that’s also why former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign already famously imploded only to “begin anew” yesterday, will be directly to Romney’s right.

Polls also played a part in the debate set-up. Roughly, the better a candidate polled over the past two months, the closer to the center of the stage he’ll be this evening. Notably, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman-turned-talk-show-host Herman Cain will bookend the other candidates.

That leaves not-quite-center, but not-quite-outer space for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Any one of the three could steal the spotlight from Romney, but Pawlenty, who, despite so far having just a small percentage of support, has positioned himself as Romney’s most potent competitor, seems most poised to do so.

This weekend, T-Paw coined the clever new term, “Obamneycare” to memorably link Romney’s doubtful gubernatorial health care policy to the much-disliked signature accomplishment of President Barack Obama’s first term. Romney should have to answer for Obamneycare — and his profound fundraising power surely only enlarges the target on his back. But if the other six do decide to gang up on Romney, the debate will be uniquely beneficial for him, as he’ll receive valuable practice at fielding difficult criticisms. After all, you can bet the eventual Republican nominee won’t face any kind of generous friendliness in debates with Obama.

But perhaps Romney won’t even face friendly fire tonight. CNN’s John King, who will moderate tonight’s debate, said on CNN this morning he thinks the Republican candidates will be polite. That is, King says, they’ll obey former President Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” As King pointed out, personal criticism tends to make the criticizer look worse than the criticized. King said he expects the candidates to stay focused on policy.

That’s just the advice most conservative voters would give the candidates anyway, according to experts on a pre-debate panel hosted by The Heritage Foundation.

“[Voters want to hear] two big things,” said Mike Franc, Heritage vice president of government studies. “Do the candidates adequately appreciate the gravity of the situation [in terms of the debt and overall economy]? And do they have a credible plan to address this?”

Charles Arlinghaus of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a policy research institution based in New Hampshire, said voters don’t want to hear the candidates criticize Obama any more than they want to hear the candidates criticize each other.

“We want to hear about what they want to do, where they want to take us, and how exactly they’re going to do it,” Arlinghaus said.

The substance of the debate aside, the evening promises to be a visually snappy one. CNN has outdone itself when it comes to the backdrop and format of the debate. A few photos:

Headed to the hockey-rink-turned-debate-stage

Red, white and blue! Bright, bold and breath-taking!

Our Salem colleague, Guy Benson, who’s breaking news pretty much 24/7 over at Townhall.com

Even our press passes look sharp.

Stay tuned this evening for updates from the spin room.