Could she bounce back from a disastrous Grand Prix Final, when she fell three times in her free skate, finishing sixth and last?
Could she prove that, despite starting college and having to face three new rivals, she is capable of repeating and, more important, continuing to move up in the sport?
And can she fend off the two 14-year-olds - Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu - who are making their debuts at senior nationals and are widely viewed as the future of American women's skating?
Meissner started to answer those questions last night, but not nearly as emphatically as three youngsters - Nagasu, 15-year-old Rachael Flatt and 16-year-old Ashley Wagner - all of whom were making their senior debuts.
Nagasu, with the night's overwhelming no-fault peformance, jumped to a commanding lead over the field. Until the last few skaters, most of that field seemed afflicted with nerves on a subzero day in Minnesota's riverside capital.
California's Nagasu scored 70.23, an astonishing 12 1/2 points better than the 57.58 Meissner totaled with an energetic short program that, despite a flaw on her opening triple-triple, put her in fourth place on this night of surprises.
Still, it might be impossible for Meissner to catch the three leaders tomorrow night. Nagasu's score is six points higher than Meissner's best.
"I'm not going to let being in first place bother me [tomorrow] night," Nagasu said.
Wagner, from Alexandria, Va., was second at 65.15. Flatt, another Californian who trains in Colorado, scored 62.91 to end up in third place heading into tomorrow night's free-skate final.
The top three finishers will make up the American team at the World Championships, but neither Nagasu nor Flatt is old enough to compete in the international event. If the same trio finishes on top, the fourth- and fifth-place women would qualify.
Nagasu was aided considerably when, one by one, most of the top competitors tumbled to the ice and down in the standings.
"I thought the performance as a whole thing was really good," Meissner said of her program. "I was very enthused and so excited to be out there. My flip, that was just a silly mistake. I'd been having great practices, and I was very confident in myself. . . . But I'm not too worried about that right now. My jumps have been pretty strong."
Meissner, who said she preferred to think of herself as "mature" and not "old" in comparison to her host of new, younger rivals, seemed to have a psychological advantage born of experience for a time.
"I've learned how to keep going, no matter what," she said.
That didn't seem to be the case when she had refused to talk after her final pre-event practice. It appeared to many that the pressures of being a targeted defending champion might be weighing her down.
"No, I wasn't [nervous]," she said. "I was really happy to be out there in front of a U.S. audience. I love this rink, and I've been having a good time here."
Although Meissner stumbled on that triple-flip, the rest of her performance was smooth, well-paced and, if not spectacular, at least professional-looking.
Many of her competitors, meanwhile, looked petrified skating before what was a disappointing crowd in a national championship that, for the first time in years, is without a corporate sponsor.
Zhang appeared slow and plodding, falling on her first jump and landing awkwardly on her second.
"I wasn't nervous," the tiny Californian whispered. "I just wasn't skating very well."
Zhang wound up in sixth place. Alissa Czisny, the erratic 20-year-old whom many expected to have a chance here, skated herself out of contention, totaling a mere 50.87.
While nerves gripped many of the bigger names, a calm and cool 17-year-old whose name isn't even in the U.S. Figure Skating Association's media guide held down fifth place.
Katrina Hacker, a Californian who trains in Boston, survived the night of attrition, scoring 56.87.
Meanwhile, Meissner's coach at the University of Delaware Figure Skating Club, Pam Gregory, said her longtime student had made a point these last few weeks to avoid distractions and maintain her focus.
She needed to, because after starting the season with a win at Skate America in Reading and a second-place finish at the Grand Prix stop in Paris, she experienced a disaster at the mid-December Grand Prix Final in Turin.
Her ankle, which she injured just before the Paris stop, is nearly back to normal.
"It feels a lot better," Meissner said, "but the doctor said it would take a while to get back to 100 percent."
It was on that same ice in Turin, at the 2006 Olympics, where Meissner finished a solid sixth, then followed that up a month later by winning a world championship at 16 in what was considered a major surprise.
"She's had a difficult time ever since winning the world title with living up to that title," said Sandra Bezic, a four-time Canadian champion who is an NBC analyst. "But she seems to be handling it well here."
Gregory noted that the Turin disaster likely was a freak occurrence, caused by Meissner's uncertainty with a brand-new program for 2008 and the aftereffects of the ankle injury.
Although Meissner is a rail-thin 5-foot-3 - at least in her bio - it's slightly disconcerting to see the size of the diminutive pair of Californians chasing her.
Zhang and Nagasu are charitably listed at 4-11. And, while their weights politely aren't revealed, it's believed they're both under 80 pounds, no heftier than one Jon Runyan leg.
"Caroline Zhang is a very talented young girl," said Johnny Weir, the three-time U.S. champion who was born in Coatesville and is an avid follower of women's skating. "And to me, that's what she is. She's a young girl that I still see carrying around a Hello Kitty pocketbook with the pens and pencils in it.
"We need to see how she's going to grow and develop as an artist," he added. "But right now, she's doing everything she needs to. I wouldn't be surprised if she's the national champion this year."
Despite her stature, Zhang is remarkably flexible, particularly on the spins that are the highlight of her elegant performances.
Weir said he was impressed. "But at the same time, I'm worried what her back is going to feel like when she turns 17 or 18," he said. "I'm sure she's missing some kind of bone or ligament. All the girls are doing spins like hers. What are they doing to their bodies? Are they still going to be able to have babies?"
Notes. U.S. ice-dance champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto seemed on their way to a fifth straight national title. The duo finished first in last night's original dance, as they had in Wednesday's compulsory dance. They lead Meryl Davis and Charlie White by nearly three points. Horsham's Brent Bommentre, of the Philadelphia Skating Club, and partner Kim Navarro were in third place heading into the free-dance finale. . . . John Corona of the Philadelphia Skating Club and partner Pilar Bosley finished seventh in the junior dance competition, an event won by Madison and Keiffer Hubbell of Ann Arbor, Mich. . . . It was 17 below zero in St. Paul yesterday morning.
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or email@example.com.