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Republicans Set To Square Off In Pivotal Iowa Debate

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images(DES MOINES, Iowa) -- Only three weeks from the Iowa caucuses, the top Republican candidates will square off Saturday night at a pivotal debate in the state capital. The debate, hosted by ABC News and moderated by Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, starts at 9 p.m. ET, live from Drake University.

The prime-time debate comes as the GOP race has started to reach a boiling point. With Newt Gingrich surging to the top of the pack, former front-runner Mitt Romney has launched scathing attacks from all sides, from his key surrogates to a political action committee that, while not affiliated with the campaign, is funded by many Romney donors.

The ad accuses Gingrich of ”flip flopping” on a slew of issues and claims that Democrats are hoping that the former House Speaker -- rather than Romney -- secures the Republican nomination.

With a picture of President Obama on the screen, the ad asks, “Why is this man smiling?” The answer: “Because his plan is working,” the ad’s narrator says. “Brutally attack Mitt Romney and hope Newt Gingrich is his opponent.”

Romney is not alone by any means in attacking Gingrich. Michele Bachmann, who won the Iowa straw poll in August but has since faded, dubbed Gingrich “a poster child for crony capitalism” and “the ultimate consummate influence peddler.” Ron Paul, who finished a close second to Bachmann at the Ames event, has unveiled slick web videos going after Gingrich. Jon Huntsman, who is not competing here in Iowa, called Gingrich a product of Washington “who participated in the excesses of our broken and polarized political system.”

The flurry of attacks should come as no surprise to Gingrich: It’s what happens when you’re on top. Every poll released this week seemed to bring better and better news for Gingrich. An ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Gingrich in the lead with 33 percent support in Iowa, followed by Romney and Paul tied at 18 percent. In two other key early states — South Carolina and Florida — Gingrich also holds impressive leads of 23 percent, according to the most recent CNN-Time magazine polls. In addition, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Gingrich “cuts sharply into President Barack Obama’s general election lead should he win the GOP nomination.”

It’s all leading up to a fascinating — and potentially explosive — debate come Saturday night: There’s the newfound clarity of the race, with the upstart Gingrich at the top, followed by Romney, with much more money and much stronger organization. There’s the increasing intensity, as attacks come fast and furious from all sides. There’s the unpredictability of the race, from Rick Perry to Herman Cain, as various candidates have surged to the front only to fall back into the pack. And don’t forget the looming caucuses: Iowans vote on Jan. 3.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio