Debate tonight: 5 key questions

Republican presidential candidates, from left to right: Texas Gov. Rick Perry; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, pose for a photo at the start of the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate Monday, Jan. 16, 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

David Goldman

Five things to watch for tonight as the five Republican presidential candidates debate at North Charleston Coliseum:

Can any of the candidates land a blow on the front-runner?

Mitt Romney remains atop South Carolina polls just two days away from the state's primary, though his lead over Newt Gingrich shrunk in a poll released Thursday. Tonight's debate will be his rivals' last, best chance to trip him up on live television before Saturday.

Will the increasingly harsh tone on the campaign trail spill into the debate?

Romney and Gingrich, in particular, have upped the level of their attacks in recent days. Watch for them to go after each other.

Can a candidate connect with evangelicals or the tea party?

Polls suggest that many conservative Republicans who are uncomfortable with Romney have yet to coalesce around a single candidate. The debate will give Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum one more chance to unify the so-called "non-Mitt" vote behind them.

What about the military vote?

With more than 400,000 veterans, many of them living along the coast, and a substantial military presence in South Carolina, this is a potential voter gold mine for the candidates. Perry's descent gives the others a chance to garner some of this support with a good showing tonight.

Will the debate strengthen or weaken the nominee?

While the five Republicans are running against each other, the party's ultimate nominee will want to unify all GOP factions to have the best shot at beating President Barack Obama this fall.

That's why some Republicans get uncomfortable when their candidates hammer each other as they run through the primaries.

— Robert Behre and Schuyler Kropf

Today

Newt Gingrich: Magnolia Hall, Bluffton, 9 a.m.; 1014 Bay St., Beaufort, 10:45 a.m.; 2808 Greenpond Highway, Walterboro, 1 p.m.

Ron Paul: Stern Center Garden, College of Charleston, 11 a.m.

Rick Perry: Southern Republican Leadership Conference, 66 George St., Charleston; 9 a.m.

Rick Santorum: Memorial Waterfront Park, Mount Pleasant, 1 p.m.; Southern Republican Leadership Conference, 66 George St., Charleston; 4 p.m.

Mitt Romney: 874 Orleans Road, Charleston, 10:10 a.m.

Debate: All five GOP candidates are expected to participate in CNN's and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference's presidential debate airing at 8 p.m. from the North Charleston Coliseum.

Friday

Gingrich: GOP Leadership Conference, 66 George St., Charleston; 9 a.m.; MUSC Children's Hospital, 169 Ashley Ave., Charleston, 10:15 a.m.; Coker College, Hartsville, 1:30 p.m.; town hall and book signing, North Charleston Coliseum, 6 p.m.

Perry: 4952 Sunset Blvd., Lexington, noon; 1000 N. Pine St., Spartanburg.

Go to postandcourier.com/charlestondebate for live coverage throughout the day and during tonight’s debate.

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