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Republican debate: Five things to watch

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If it seems like it was just a week ago that eight Republican presidential candidates sat around a table for a debate, that’s because it was just a week ago.

Joe Raedle

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The last CNN debate, sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express at the Florida State Fairgrounds September 12, 2011 in Tampa, Florida.

But with tonight’s CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference debate, which starts at 8 pm EST, the iron-man-like gauntlet of back-to-back fall debates ends and the candidates won’t have face-to-face meetings until next month. So tonight, the candidates will have two hours to make an impression and land a punch before another round of debates begins.

Here are five questions that we’re asking ourselves about the line-up before this debate begins.

Is Herman Cain serious, and will he sing? Cain said that his strong showing in the polls means that he has a giant target on his back and his new leading man status was on full display during a Sunday grilling on“Meet the Press.”

Cain was forced to admit that his 9-9-9 plan will mean higher taxes for some, and he seemed out of his depth on foreign policy — he veered into Sarah Palin territory, when he seemed not to be familiar with a neo-conservative approach to foreign policy.

There is also some evidence that establishment Republicans are starting to train their fire on Cain as well — Grover Norquist called the tax plan “dangerous” and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), said that it appears to be a tax increase.and he wouldn’t favor it.

On immigration, Cain has seemed serious about the electric fence idea, but has then backed off, saying that it was only a joke. Nevada’s Latino population, which amounts to 26 percent of state’s population , will be listening to whether he has a real plan, or just more jokes.

So far, Cain’s affable manner, his use of colorful colloquialisms (Has any presidential candidate used the phrase “Awww....shucky, ducky” on the stump as Cain has?), and his video ode to pizza have made him an entertaining candidate.

Now what?

What Will Anderson Cooper Do? PBS’s Jim Lehrer, who has moderated 11 presidential debates, has this advice for Cooper and others who tackle the task of tangling with candidates in this format:

“Look in a mirror and say ‘it’s not about me, it’s not about me, it’s not about me.’”

That might be a hard task for Cooper, who was under the impression that a show segment that featured him eating spinach for the first time would actually be interesting.

Consider another lesson from the last Academy Awards: The moment show producers try to be hip, young, cool and techno-savvy is the very moment when shows cease to be hip , young, cool and techno-savvy.

Look for Cooper, who has embraced his role as newsman and pop- culture personality (he had a spray tan date with Snooki of Jersey Shore fame), to ignore this lesson (and probably Lehrer’s too) and try to ramp up the cool quotient and make the debate seem “of the moment.”(The network has paired with GetGlue where viewers can “check-in” and earn stickers. Yep, stickers.) Warning to candidates: Don’t try to join the clever-cool bandwagon, it will make for an awkward moment. Just ask Jon Huntsman.

Speaking of Jon Huntsman, will he be missed? Huntsman has become the king of the grand gesture that often falls flat. From his announcement speech in front of the Statue of Liberty to his boycott of the Nevada caucuses to protest the state for jumping the line and and setting its caucus on Jan. 14, his no-show at tonight’s debate is another play for attention and a way to curry favor with the Granite State.

At 7:30 Tuesday night, Huntsman will host a townhall in New Hampshire, likely in front of a few hundred voters, who will leave his townhall and likely go home and along with millions of other viewers, tune in and see his rivals try to gain some national ground. Huntsman obviously misses that chance tonight. And what will his absence mean? Fewer jabs at Romney, his main rival for New Hampshire voters and fewer awkward jokes.

After each debate, Huntsman’s campaign has declared him the winner in a bit of spin that every campaign employs. Hard to see how they do that tonight, when Huntsman, deep in debt and rock bottom in the polls, will give up a chance at a national audience, for a handful in New Hampshire.

Will Rick Perry try? Perry seemed to make a conscious decision in the last debate to not say much at all, betting that the more he talks, the more his poll numbers slide. He came into the last debate with an energy-based jobs plan that he hinted at, rather than revealed.

And after the debate, Perry stated the obvious, admitting that debates aren’t his strong suit; his campaign has seemed to dismiss the importance of debates altogether.

So the bar is low for the Texas governor. Very low. Almost any decent exchange with Romney or Cain, (or anyone else for that matter) could breathe some life into his flagging campaign.

But in the lead-up to every debate, the question has been the same: Will Perry finally perform? And after every debate the answer has been, ‘No, but maybe next time.’” This time, there won’t be another debate until November, and for now, it seems that Perry is taking the Mike Murphy approach to every debate. As in....“zzzz this fancy pants debatin’ doesn’t matter one bit. $15 [million] in negative ads coming soon, Mitt.”

How many times will Romney say “middle class?In the last debate, it was clear that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s moderation had rubbed off on Romney, who has, for instance, moved from calling the Occupy Wall Street protests “dangerous” to saying that he identifies with some of the protesters’ frustrations. Romney sounded positively Obama-like in talking about the need for working across the aisle.

And on health care, Romney went with the compassionate conservative answer, saying that in Massachusetts less than one percent of kids are now uninsured.

Yet the Democrats are intent on casting Romney as Mr. Wall Street. This week, the Democratic National Committee circulated an old photo of Romney from his Bain Capital days, posing with his monied partners who were flush with cash and the Democrats continue to mock Romney for calling Obama’s $1,500 tax cut a temporary little band-aid.

And now, this from Herman Cain on Romney after talking about making pizzas, hamburgers, and cleaning parking lots as a small- business manager: “Mitt Romney is a great businessman. I have a lot of respect for him.... He has been more of a Wall Street executive. I have been more of a Main Street executive.”

Democrats couldn’t have written a better line of attack for Romney, who has proven himself a master debater, but still must work to counter the out-of-touch label.

More on PostPolitics

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GOP debate: Where and when to watch it

Gaffe-free Romney tries for one more

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Paul must persuade voters of electability

Bachmann needs to emerge from deep hole

Huntsman to boycott Nevada debate

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