WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Seven Republican presidential hopefuls meet in a debate on Monday in New Hampshire, with most of the top-tier contenders for the right to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012 participating.
Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann will share the stage in the nationally televised forum from Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Here is a look at elements to watch in the debate.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, leads the pack in opinion polls, which along with his broad name recognition from a failed 2008 campaign and his formidable fundraising ability have given him the early title of front-runner.
But his presidential bid faces serious hurdles, including doubts among activists about the depth of his conservative beliefs, charges of flip-flopping that linger from 2008, and questions about his Mormon religion and his support for a state healthcare plan similar to Obama’s overhaul.
A front-runner traditionally provides a target in debates, but it might be too early in the campaign -- and Romney might be too weak a front-runner -- for that to happen this time.
“I would be surprised if they gang up on Romney,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
“I would expect more subtle contrasts with Romney than direct attacks. When a candidate is making that first impression they don’t want it to be that of an attack dog.”
Most of the other contenders will be vying for the role of the chief alternative to Romney, particularly among the social and religious conservatives who have been slow to warm up to the man from liberal Massachusetts.
Bachmann, the fiery conservative congresswoman from Minnesota, has earned a following with cable news shows and Tea Party activists with her outspoken condemnations of Obama and Washington insiders.
“Michelle Bachmann has a natural advantage in that competition -- she’s the only woman on the stage but also she’s charismatic,” Cullen said.
Former pizza executive Herman Cain has earned fans among conservative activists with his blunt-talking style, and he was judged the winner of the lightly attended first debate in South Carolina by a Fox News panel of voters.
Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, will still attend the debate and has promised to press on despite the mass resignation of his senior staff on Thursday.
He will be under pressure to offer a satisfying explanation of what happened and make a case for why he is continuing his increasingly longshot campaign.
“Newt Gingrich all of a sudden has a lot to prove. He seems almost irrelevant,” said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
Most presidential debates are forgotten as soon as they are over, but candidates can use them to build a reputation that propels their campaign.
Democrat Howard Dean’s sharp denunciations of the Iraq war ignited a groundswell of support and donations that briefly made him a surprise front-runner in the 2004 race, although he fell flat after a loss in the first contest in Iowa.
Paul, the libertarian Republican congressman from Texas, also built a loyal following with strong debate performances in the 2008 race although it never made him a threat to win.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee burnished his reputation and conservative credentials with his folksy debate style in the 2008 campaign, propelling him to a win in Iowa and a strong runner-up finish to nominee John McCain.
“The type of people who contribute loads of money to a campaign and can convince other people to do so are the types of people who watch the early debates,” Scala said. “They will be looking for a spark from someone.”
Reporting by John Whitesides, Editing by Doina Chiacu