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Republicans will debate in Iowa tonight, ahead of the Ames straw poll this weekend, a test of viability and grassroots backing that has traditionally had an effect on the caucuses the following winter.

We can expect Mitt Romney, the (tenuous) frontrunner, to be the butt of some sharp attacks. Most recently, he’s come under fire for bragging about raising taxes to S&P in order to secure a ratings upgrade while governor of Massachusetts. He will almost certainly be hammered for breaching Republican — and Tea Party — orthodoxy.

Also look for the lesser-known candidates to try to stand out and gain some buzz. Herman Cain and Ron Paul will be provocative, as they usually are. And former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, still in the single digits in polls, will do whatever he can to break out of the nice guy mold he’s found himself stuck in to gain some traction.

But the elephant in the room isn’t actually in the room tonight: Rick Perry. The Texas governor has essentially made clear he will run for president, and is expected to remove any lingering doubts with a mischievously-timed event on Saturday, the day of the straw poll. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has been attacking him for being soft in his opposition to gay marriage, and it will be interesting to see if the Texan’s name comes up tonight.

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