(Reuters) - Eight Republican presidential hopefuls will debate in Iowa Thursday, hoping to generate momentum two days before a closely watched straw poll that will test their campaigns' strength.
Here are keys to the Republicans' debate in a state that in February will hold the first caucus of the primary season determining who will become the party's presidential nominee to run in November 2012 against Democratic President Barack Obama.
Will Michele Bachmann have staying power?
A staunch fiscal, social and religious conservative, the Minnesota congresswoman joined the upper tier of candidates after a strong performance in the Republicans' first major debate on June 13.
Despite the perception that many of her views are outside the mainstream -- her husband owns a counseling business that has sought to "cure" homosexuals -- Bachmann has scored political points by making sharp statements against Obama and staunchly opposing efforts to raise the U.S. debt ceiling.
A Tea Party favorite, Bachmann may need to score points in Iowa in the debate as well as the Ames straw poll. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is also popular with Tea Party voters, is expected to make his plans for the White House clear during an appearance in South Carolina Saturday.
Who will want to repeat -- or eat -- their words?
A strong performance, or clever one-liners, could boost a candidate before the straw poll in Ames Saturday. But a weak performance or verbal gaffe could dim any hopeful's chances, and haunt them throughout the campaign.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the candidates with thinner support -- such as Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich -- are most likely to make statements designed to get noticed.
"Expect the wildest jabs and the most outrageous statements from them. They know the clock is ticking in the winnowing process. That's what Iowa's for: not to pick the eventual nominee but to narrow the field," he wrote in a debate preview.
Will Pawlenty get tough?
Pawlenty is mired at the bottom in opinion polls, and needs a strong performance in Iowa to resuscitate his campaign.
Strategists say the former Minnesota governor has come across as "too nice," especially during the June debate when he was slammed for failing to go after Mitt Romney, considered the Republican front-runner.
He has changed his tune of late by saying his "Minnesota nice" image does not mean he will not be a tough campaigner.
One sign of that toughness would be whether Pawlenty attempts to score points against his fellow Minnesotan Bachmann. He had expected the backing of the social conservatives who play a strong role in the Iowa caucuses, but Bachmann has emerged as their favorite due to her outspoken opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
How will the field attack "presidential" Romney?
Romney is participating in the debate but skipping the straw poll -- an unofficial mock election that gauges candidates' ability to gather, and pay for, supporters -- in an acknowledgment of his weakness with Iowa's core Republicans. They consider the former Massachusetts governor too moderate.
The fund-raising leader, Romney has been taking on the mantle of presumed nominee by issuing attacks on Obama and statements on national and international issues rather than attacking the other Republican candidates.
Thursday's debate gives the rest of the field a rare chance to have at Romney face-to-face, and observers will be watching closely to see what his fellow Republicans pick as Romney's weaknesses or whether they opt to lay off him, which could strengthen has position as field leader.
Will Huntsman gain traction?
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has failed to gain traction since he announced he was running in June. Huntsman, who was Obama's ambassador to China and considered a moderate among the Republican field, is not competing in Iowa, whose caucuses are dominated by the party's conservative branch.
A strong debate showing could translate into badly needed name recognition for him.
Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman