Seven Republican presidential contenders will try to use Thursday's debate in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa to cast themselves as the strongest alternative to one rival: front-runner Mitt Romney.
At least two - Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, both of Minnesota - are hoping for a last-minute boost before an important weekend test vote that could make or break their campaigns. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is looking to make a strong impression in his first debate, while Texas Rep. Ron Paul is out to prove his ideas are more mainstream than fringe.
Others struggling to gain traction - former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and businessman Herman Cain - are simply seeking to promote their issues and maybe even boost their profiles.
All risk being overshadowed by one Republican who won't be on the stage - Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has signaled he's likely to join the field in the coming days and will visit the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina this weekend.
"This is the official opening of the season," said Republican strategist Terry Holt. "It's the debut and you better have your best stuff ready. That raises the stakes."