The Note: GOP Candidates Sharpen Their Knives For Debate Night In Des Moines

By MICHAEL FALCONE (@michaelpfalcone), AMY WALTER (@amyewalter) and SHUSHANNAH WALSHE (@shushwalshe)

DES MOINES — Good morning from Iowa!

In the midst of an election season when debates matter, this night could be a turning point in the race for the Republican nomination.

With Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney locked in a pitched battle at the top of the GOP pack and a cadre of other candidates looking to steal their thunder, the stakes could not be higher for tonight’s ABC News, Yahoo News, WOI-TV, Des Moines Register, Iowa Republican Party debate, which begins at 9 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Central.

The debate, which will be moderated by ABC’s Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, takes place on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines — in a state where voters will gather less than a month from today to kick off the process of selecting the Republican nominee.

To watch, tune into any ABC television station across the country or log on for a live-stream on ABCNews.com, Yahoo.com, MyABC5.com, and DesMoinesRegister.com. And look for special coverage and analysis tomorrow on “This Week” with Christiane Amanpour.

As ABC’s Matthew Jaffe notes in his preview of tonight’s showdown, “the prime-time debate comes as the GOP race has started to reach a boiling point.” With Gingrich surging, Romney and his allies have launched scathing attacks from all sides. http://abcn.ws/v5GkaN

“The flurry of attacks should come as no surprise to Gingrich: It’s what happens when you’re on top. Every poll released this week seemed to bring better and better news for Gingrich,” Jaffe writes. “It’s all leading up to a fascinating — and potentially explosive debate.”

In an exclusive interview with ABC’s David Muir in Iowa yesterday, Romney declared that Gingrich would be the easier candidate for President Obama to beat in the general election — “no question in my mind,” Romney said.

And in a preview of things to come, Romney noted, “I’d expect Newt Gingrich and I will have some differences and we’ll be able to discuss those,” tonight.

For his part, the former House Speaker has been less willing to go after the former Massachusetts governor, but as ABC’s Jake Tapper points out, that may not last long. Case-in-point: In an interview yesterday, Gingrich accused Romney of “running to the left of Teddy Kennedy in Massachusetts in 1994.” http://abcn.ws/tPhEcH

“He wasn’t for the Reagan-Bush policies,” Gingrich said, “he was independent.”

With Gingrich and Romney primed for a fight and Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum ready to engage their rivals, buckle up for debate night in Des Moines.

 

TWEETERS TAKE NOTE: TONIGHT’S OFFICIAL HASHTAG: #IowaDebate

 

WHAT WILL GINGRICH DO? ABC News Political Director Amy Walter and Yahoo News Washington bureau chief David Chalian tackle the question: “What should we expect to see from the newest frontrunner, Newt Gingrich?”

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