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Previewing tonight's debate

From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
DURHAM,
NH -- Greetings from New Hampshire, where it is a crisp 66 degrees and
sunny. I am on the ground here in the Granite State hours ahead of
tonight's GOP debate. First Read will be liveblogging and keeping tabs
on all the swipes, shots and absences (eh hem, Fred Thompson).

But first a few thoughts on what to look for
and where the Republican field stands right now. The last Republican
debate was a week before the Iowa straw poll, which after our busy
August, feels like a really long time ago. At that debate, you'll
remember, fireworks came off the bat on the issue of abortion --
notably because of Brownback's attacks on Romney. Well, if you saw today's photo of
Brownback's speech here, he won't likely be the center of attention --
not after his disappointing showing in Ames, finishing behind Huckabee, despite the resources he pumped into the straw poll that Giuliani and McCain skipped.

In this debate, the bar is set high for Romney, who leads in the NH polls, owns a home here, and was the governor of neighboring Massachusetts. He has done well for himself so far in these debates, but will he come under attack tonight? Notably absent, of course, will be Fred Thompson, but he will be present on the airwaves (in the form of a new TV ad). Thompson has angered the New Hampshire Republican Party by skipping the debate and will instead appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Behind the scenes, the Romney and Giuliani campaigns have been going after each other hard, particularly on immigration (see "sanctuary city" and "hypocrite"). But will the candidates finally be that sharp face-to-face? So far at these debates, they've acted like best buds. Does that change tonight?

Moreover, this debate and New Hampshire may be most important to McCain, whose epitaph has all but been written by insider politicos. Does he go after front-runners Giuliani and Romney?