Saturday's Republican presidential debate in Iowa could offer one of the best chances yet to compare the top candidates.
The field is winnowed to six, with the departure of Herman Cain and the disinvitation of Jon Huntsman, who didn't meet minimum poll numbers to qualify.
And the first actual voting to determine the Republican nominee is now just 25 days away. So the still relatively new front-runner, Newt Gingrich, could get extra time to match wits with the man who has been at or near the top in polls for months, Mitt Romney.
Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, greet crowd members while campaigning Friday in Marion, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, greet crowd members while campaigning Friday in Marion, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
A Des Moines Register poll last weekend had Gingrich leading in Iowa, which initiates voting with its Jan. 3 caucuses. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was second at 18 percent, followed by Romney at 16 percent.
While Romney's strategy has never hinged on winning Iowa, Iowa Public Radio's Kate Wells reports that the former Massachusetts governor needs to make sure Gingrich doesn't gather enough momentum there to carry him to unexpectedly strong showings in New Hampshire and beyond.
That strategy seems to include liberal use of the Romney family in campaigning and ads.
As Romney is not shy to mention, he and his wife, Ann, have been married for more than four decades, and have five sons and 16 grandchildren. Kate Wells reports that the family is prominent on the stump and the airwaves in Iowa these days, perhaps highlighting an implicit contrast to Gingrich, the former House speaker with his well-documented infidelities and multiple marriages.
Also in Iowa, NPR's Brian Naylor examines the Ron Paul phenomenon and the grueling schedule being kept by the 76-year-old grandfather who is winning support — much of it among the young — with his unusual brand of conservative populism.
Saturday's debate, which begins at 9 p.m. ET, is sponsored by the Des Moines Register, ABC News, Iowa ABC affiliate WOI-TV, Yahoo! and the Republican Party.