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Preview: Tonight's GOP presidential debate

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Tonight marks the second Republican presidential debate of the campaign season and some of the field's top names will be on stage in the nation's first primary election state. The debate is being broadcast from New Hampshire on CNN tonight from 8-10 p.m. ET and I'll be providing live coverage right here on the blog.

Standing on stage tonight will be Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. While not all of these debate participants has officially declared their intention to run for president, it should be an interesting night (at least to political geeks like me).

While the candidates are going through their last-minute debate prep, what can we the voters expect tonight? (Rumor is that Pawlenty actually skipped one of his last debate-prep sessions to go bowling. If it's any consolation, he bowled a 151.)

As we've seen in recent polls this week, Romney holds a commanding early lead in New Hampshire and tonight he will have to prove to voters that he deserves this early frontrunner status. I fully expect candidates like Pawlenty to continue hammering the former Massachusetts governor on the issue of "ObamneyCare" (without actually uttering the phrase, even though I think it's a real gem), but Romney will surely be in his element tonight in front of a friendly Northeastern crowd.

Gingrich's main task tonight will be to prove that his campaign isn't dead, just days after his senior staff walked out on him.

For most of the other candidates, they will have to harness their notorious energy behind the podium as fiery leaders of the GOP and translate it into a succinct yet thorough analysis of issues important to today's Republican voters. As the country has painfully learned over the last 2.5 years, it takes much more than enthusiastically delivered talking points to successfully govern as president.

And while tonight's class of 7 candidates may seem like a crowded stage, remember that we're still awaiting news from the likes of Sarah Palin, Jon Huntsman, Rudy Giuliani and Rick Perry.

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