Mark Halperin’s answers this week in TIME.
Why has intraparty skirmishing finally broken out among the Republican presidential candidates?
The GOP primary race is still mostly a spectator sport for insiders, but — pay attention, people! — real voters will cast real ballots in just six months. Time is growing short for trailing candidates to shake things up. So straggling Tim Pawlenty is attacking supernova Michele Bachmann’s lack of executive experience and belittling her congressional accomplishments. That’s because his fellow Minnesotan’s Iowa surge represents an immediate mortal threat to T-Paw’s candidacy, which could not survive a weak Hawkeye showing. Jon Huntsman, despite promising a campaign of civility, is swiping at Mitt Romney’s record on job creation as Massachusetts governor because Huntsman can’t become a plausible nominee without knocking Romney off his front-runner perch.
What do the candidates hope to accomplish with these new tactics?
Huntsman and his advisers realize that after generating a lot of preannouncement buzz, they failed to deliver a juggernaut. But they understand an iron law of politics: the media abhor an unchallenged front-runner. There’s still ample hope for whoever is positioned as the Romney alternative, especially since Republicans remain wishy-washy on his candidacy. Hence the increased jockeying among the most likely substitutes. Bachmann, meanwhile, is treading carefully through the media freak show to soothe GOP fears about her electability.
What are the upcoming milestones in the nomination contest?
Texas Governor Rick Perry looks as if he’s fixin’ to run. Despite the late start, his tough conservatism and sleek appeal could still vault him to the front of the pack. Ditto megaceleb Sarah Palin. Early August will bring a closely scrutinized GOP debate plus an Iowa straw poll that is symbolic but has the power to cripple a candidate who bombs.