Romney Target in Republican Debate Today

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Tonight, the first major Republican presidential debate of the 2012 election season will air on CNN from a gaudy red-white-and-blue stage constructed in the hockey arena of St. Anselm College.

Look for some of the seven candidates to throw an elbow or two or hip-check somebody into the boards (sorry) in an effort to break away from the pack. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the putative frontrunner in a wide open race, might want to brace himself - and probably is, wherever he is hunkered down for debate prep this morning.

The stage is set for June 13 Republican presidential debate in Manchester, N.H. (St. Anselm College)

A new Gallup poll released Monday finds that nearly one in four Republicans now supports Romney for the nomination - 24 percent, moving up from 17 percent in late May.

Only one of Romney’s potential rivals, Sarah Palin, scores in double digits in the survey, with 16 percent backing the former half-term Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee. Palin has been in the news lately, between updates on Rep. Anthony Weiner’s wiener, with a madcap "One Nation" bus tour of historical sites in the Northeast and the release of 24,000 emails from her tenure as governor. But there is a growing belief that Palin will not be an actual candidate.

With Palin out of the equation, Romney’s lead is even bigger, 27 percent to 10 percent for ex-Godfather’s pizza executive Herman Cain, a conservative talk show host from Atlanta.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian icon, saw his support drop to 7 percent, down from 10 percent in May. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, despite a Boston Globe poll Sunday that found him surging in the crucial first-primary state of New Hampshire, scored 6 percent in the national Gallup survey.

So did former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, up from 2 percent, while Pawlenty was unchanged. (Rick-mentum?)

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign is listing after all his major staff quit last week, each had 5 percent. Former Govs. Gary Johnson of New Mexico and Jon Huntsman of Utah trailed.

"Polls at this point are meaningless," Pawlenty told reporters Sunday after campaigning at a picnic of the Hillsborough County GOP in Greenfield, N.H. "If they did, Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton would be president." In other words, campaigns matter.

Pawlenty tried out some moves Sunday in his effort to become the anti-Romney. He’s also the former Republican governor of a blue state, but unlike Romney, Pawlenty has more credibility with social-issues conservatives.

For one thing, Pawlenty coined the neologism "Obamneycare," a jab that reminds Republicans that Romney’s health-care program in Massachusetts, with an individual mandate to buy insurance, served as a model for President Obama’s national plan.

You can expect to hear that term again and again, perhaps tonight.

The debate runs from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. EDT.