What to Watch in the Republicans' New Hampshire Debate Monday Night

The Republican 2012 field, such as it is, gathers to do battle in New Hampshire.

The Republicans are spoiling us, America. I hope you realize that. Just as hundreds of millions of us finally are coming to grips with the many life-altering reflections and pithy rejoinders offered during last month’s riveting, not-a-second-to-be-forgotten Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, your Grand Old Party is bringing you another installment. And in a brilliantly timed move by CNN, Monday night’s New Hampshire encounter is in the same time slot as the Stanley Cup Finals, the most dramatic episode of “the Bachelorette” yet, and a re-run of “How I Met Your Mother.” Which means that no one is going to be watching tonight, except for me and Candy Crowley.

For the rest of you, I offer a few of the major storylines that we’ll be following (ranked from most interesting to least) as well as their probable outcomes:

#1: Herman-ator 2: Judgment Day. To the astonishment of pundits and the embarrassment of every other candidate on stage, Herman Cain was declared the consensus winner of last month’s South Carolina debate. Mr. Cain’s challenge in New Hampshire is to turn his following among a small circle of conservatives into a viable national campaign that wins at least the grudging respect of the political class. So Cain’s efforts have been a bit turbulent. But the real question for him to answer is this: Why should voters make Mr. Cain the first person since Dwight D. Eisenhower to be president of the United States without ever holding any other political office? Founding Godfather’s pizza is not exactly planning D-Day. Chance that Mr. Cain will accomplish this tonight: 1 in 1,000.

#2: Newt Gingrich Rides Again. The former Speaker of the House has had the worst few weeks of any presidential candidate since Grover Cleveland fended off charges he had an illegitimate child: Newt was glitter-bombed by a gay activist. His press statements were lampooned by John Lithgow. And he was humiliated by his entire staff, who not only resigned en masse, but kicked him in the stomach on their way out the door, with damaging leaks to a gloating press contingent about what a disaster he supposedly is. But as the adage goes, joyful is the man with nothing left to lose. When he wants to be, the former professor can be an insightful and entertaining presence, a font of interesting ideas in a primary race that so far seems to have none. It really is too early for the media to write anybody out of this race—and Republican voters love nothing more than to prove the “lamestream media” wrong. Chance that Speaker Gingrich will prove the nay-saying literati Harvard-loving hatemongering elite wrong this evening: 1 in 1,000,000.

#3. It takes a woman. Tonight is a watershed of sorts: the first GOP presidential debate in TV history featuring a prominent woman at the podium (unless you include Elizabeth Dole’s over-before-it-began campaign effort more than a decade ago). Representative Michele Bachmann is a Tea Party favorite with a talent for notoriety and strong credentials with social conservatives -- sort of what you might come up with if you combined Sarah Palin, Andrew Breitbart, and Mike Huckabee with PT Barnum (Warning: do not try this at home.) In her first foray against the other guys, Ms. Bachmann will need to show she is a plausible presidential candidate while maintaining the sometimes over-the-top feistiness that won her accolades in the first place. Chance of success: 1 in 25,000.

#4. Mitt Romney and the frontrunner’s curse. Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, Fred Thompson – each of these presidential contenders were, at one point or another, the frontrunners in the 2008 primaries. None, of course, made it to the White House. Even the eventual GOP nominee John McCain was almost fatally afflicted with the frontrunner’s curse, only claiming the nomination after being given up for dead by everyone but his family and Lindsey Graham. Governor Romney’s toughest challenge in tonight’s debate is to keep himself from being this year’s establishment choice, the kiss of death for disgruntled and disillusioned voters. While Romney is at it, the Reagan wannabe will also try to keep enough voters from remembering that he once said this. Chance he will pull this off convincingly: Zero.

#5. Tim Pawlenty and the Case of the Missing Buzz. There is something unfailingly, but comfortably, boring about the former governor from Minnesota. Yet over and over Mr. Pawlenty has been intent on trying to offer us pizzazz. He’s given “bold” speeches. He’s tried to offer “bold” attacks on his opponents. He’s even tried out a “bold” idea or two. The latest? Announcing that America set a goal to grow the economy by 5 percent each year. If I were Barack Obama, here’s what I’d respond: Is there something wrong with 6 percent? Why not 10 percent, for that matter, or 1,000,000 percent? Is Tim Pawlenty saying five percent growth is the best we can do? While we are at it, why don’t we also set an “aspirational goal” that every person in America in 2013 has a job, and free health care, and a new Prius (choice of blue or red), and that no member of Congress ever again will send pictures over Twitter? Monday evening’s debate is another chance for T-Paw (even the nickname seems dull) to embrace his inner nerd. Instead of trying to be something he is not, why not make the case to voters that boring and plodding can be good. Chance Pawlenty will bore us to cheers: 1 in 10,000.

#6. Ron Paul and the Case of the Missing Smile. The cult-favorite presidential candidate seems to think that Americans will elect him president in the hope that he’ll stop yelling at us. Tonight those of us watching will look again for elusive signs of a simple grin. Chance that Rep. Paul will crack a joke, take a breath, or offer a hearty chuckle: too small to be measurable.

#7. Justice for Johnson: No one likes to be the first person voted out in “Survivor” or “Celebrity Apprentice” and yet every year someone unlucky soul gets the boot. The same applies to presidential debates. Gary Johnson no longer makes the cut of credible political contenders. Unlike also-rans of yesteryear, like Alan Keyes, he has not pledged to go on a hunger strike. But he is taking his case to the internet. Chance that Gary Johnson will get what he deserves: 100 percent.