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National media see Iowa debate key for Minnesota ‘neighbors’ Pawlenty, Bachmann

Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann kick off a long Iowa campaign weekend that includes tonight’s debate and culminates in Saturday’s GOP Straw Poll. They join six other Republican presidential hopefuls tonight in Ames for an 8 p.m. debate airing on Fox News.

The first Iowa debate will “begin to show the policy and political cleavages that exist among the candidates,” says National Public Radio.

And it’s especially big for Pawlenty and Bachmann, the story says:

The two candidates from neighboring Minnesota might have the most to gain and lose at the debate. Tim Pawlenty, the former governor, is in great need of a bolt of positive press after his polling and fundraising reports over the last month have seemed anything but robust. If Pawlenty can shake off his rough New Hampshire debate and spark a two to three wave of support that can carry him across the straw poll finish line in a significant fashion, it will be a very successful night.

With the time fast approaching when some of these candidates will be weeded out of the race, the fur could fly tonight, says Politico:

That’s because in the two months since the last debate — a stiff, largely uneventful New Hampshire forum — few of the GOP hopefuls have done anything to shake up the low-key, largely civil primary race. Among the declared candidates, only Michele Bachmann is on the move, and her Iowa-centric surge has yet to put a scare into national front-runner Mitt Romney. 

That could begin to change Thursday evening, as a pack of lagging hopefuls seeks to make up ground on the eve of the Ames Straw Poll by taking on Romney and Bachmann.

“This is that window where the candidates can rise to the occasion or crumble. We’ll look back on this in about five months and the field won’t look anything like it does now because some people will have risen to this moment,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who is unaligned in the 2012 race. “This is the beginning of the real campaign here.”

Veteran consultant Mark McKinnon said that at the Iowa debate, “the real games begin,” adding: “Everyone better wear helmets.”

For Pawlenty, the story says, the goal will “be firing up their core supporters for the Saturday straw poll. Bachmann has the additional burden of meeting high expectations set by her strong performance in New Hampshire.”

And:

Of the candidates placing big bets on the Ames ballot, Pawlenty might be the one with the most to prove Thursday night. His weak performance in the New Hampshire debate — when he fumbled over an attempt to criticize Romney’s record on health care — has haunted his campaign. And the perception that he lacks Bachmann’s confrontational, red-meat style has been a drag on his efforts in Iowa.

“Pawlenty will want to extinguish the perception from the last debate that he shied away from taking on the front-runner,” said Curt Anderson, a former top aide to Romney’s 2008 campaign. “The challenge for him is to do that effectively without being so eager that it comes off as a pre-planned, over-the-top outburst.” 

Pawlenty and his fellow straw poll competitors will also be scrambling to stand out ahead of Rick Perry’s imminent entry into the presidential race — which means showing they’re capable of clashing with the famously sharp-elbowed Texas governor.

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