The stage is set for the first major Republican presidential debate of the 2012 season tonight in Manchester, N.H. -- and candidates are starting to assume roles. Here is a look at who will be on the stage, who won't, and what to expect.
The GOP front runner -- Mitt Romney is the man to beat. The former Massachusetts governor, who failed to secure the nomination in 2008, is better recognized than any of the other Republican candidates who will be on the stage Monday. He is thought to be raising money at a blistering pace.
In a USA Today/Gallup poll released Sunday, Romney had the most support – 24 percent of Republicans surveyed. None of the other candidates who will be at the debate, which is sponsored by CNN, WMUR and the Manchester Union Leader, managed to score in the double digits. The poll also suggested that Republicans are more eager to select a nominee that can compete with President Obama in November of 2012 than they are to select a strictly ideological social conservative. Romney was a centrist governor in the blue state of Massachusetts and counts business experience and electability as two of his top assets.
The First Casualty -- Newt Gingrich is wounded and his campaign is limping into New Hampshire after most of his top staffers quit last week. He sought to re-launch his campaign in Los Angeles over the weekend -- but no candidate is in more danger of being the first to drop out than Gingrich.
The Rabble Rouser -- A newly combative Tim Pawlenty is trying to stir things up in the Granite State. The only candidate with public events on Sunday, Pawlenty tied Romney to President Obama and the divisive health reform law that Washington Democrats passed in 2010 and which Republicans generally oppose, derisively calling it "Obamacare."
That law is in part modeled after the health-reform initiative that had bipartisan support in Massachusetts in 2006 and which Romney signed into law. It has derisively been called "Romneycare."
Pawlenty dubbed a new political slogan when he put the two terms together, during an interview on Fox News, and using the term "Obamneycare."
Such catchy lines are good grist for the debate podium and it's clear that the Republican race, which started slow, is entering a new, more combative phase. Pundits see a Republican contender to Romney in Pawlenty, another Republican governor of a blue state, but with a sounder record on social issues.
Pawlenty also seemed to call out Rep. Michelle Bachmann and Rep. Ron Paul on the stump, saying that as a governor he has led a state and gotten results, unlike Congressman who offer amendments to bills that never get enacted into law. Bachmann and Paul are the only Congresspeople currently running.
Bachmann in particular is seen as a top contender with Pawlenty for socially conservative voters who may not warm to Romney. But Pawlenty is not in the top three, according to the most recent polling.
The Wildcard -- Who is in the top three in recent polling? Herman Cain. The former Godfather's Pizza CEO and political neophyte ranks third in the most recent poll. His unlikely candidacy has support from the Tea Party and his main issue is opposition to raising the debt ceiling. Most Republicans want to cut spending in exchange for giving the federal government the ability to borrow more money.