Eight Republican presidential candidates will gather tonight at 8 p.m. at Oakland University in Michigan for their tenth debate of the primary season.
Here’s our take on what to watch for in tonight’s debate:
* Controversy, thy name is Cain: The biggest story (duh) in the time since the last GOP debate way back on Oct. 18 has been the sexual harassment allegations swirling around businessman Herman Cain.
While the CNBC debate is centered on economic issues, it’s impossible for the moderators not to bring up the controversy and let Cain address it. He’ll almost certainly repeat what he said at his press conference on Tuesday: that he denies all of the allegations against him and that it is a “Democrat machine” that is pushing them.
The real x-factor is whether any of Cain’s rivals go after him on his pat answer and, if so, whom?
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney called the allegations “very serious” on Tuesday but seems unlikely to be the first person to launch an attack on Cain — hoping to continue to stay above the fray and keep the focus on President Obama and the economy.
The best bet to throw the first punch at Cain is Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann who has already hinted at her line of attack — “There are no surprises with me,” she has said (subtle Radiohead reference?) — and badly needs to peel away social conservative supporters for Cain. Another potential puncher is former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum who has shown a penchant for mixing it up in past get-togethers.
If one of Cain’s rivals presses him, watch to see how he reacts. Humor or anger could be disastrous politically for him.
* Romney’s wheelhouse: Could Romney hope for a better set up tonight? An economic-themed debate in a state where his father served as governor and where his family name remains revered is something close to an ideal set of circumstances for the former Massachusetts governor.
Couple that with the fact that Romney has proven himself over the last nine debates (he skipped the first gathering of the election in South Carolina in May) as the cream of the crop in this format and it becomes clear that he’s likely to have a very good night.
The question though is to what end? Romney has distinguished himself repeatedly in these debates and yet his support in hypothetical Republican primary matchups remains stagnant in the low to mid 20s.
That dynamic suggests that there are lots and lots of Republican voters who know that Romney is a skilled and able politician who could stand on a debate stage with President Obama and still don’t want to be for him. And that could mean that these debates are less important that we all think they are.
* Rick Perry, second tier candidate?: In every debate he has participated in to date, the Texas Governor has been treated like a top-tier candidate. He is regularly positioned at the center of the stage and is one of a small handful of candidates who gets the lion’s share of questions directed at him.
But, two new national polls put Perry firmly in the second tier; a Washington Post-ABC News survey pegged him at 13 percent in a hypothetical primary ballot — well behind Cain and Romney — while an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed Perry taking just 10 percent.
Perry has shown in his past performances that, even as a frontrunner, he is a mediocre debater. He may well be headed then to a major struggle tonight if he is not given the sort of speaking time he has enjoyed in past debates.
Perry needs to find ways to insert himself into the main conversation of the debate. One way to do that? Attack Romney and force the frontrunner to react. That’s the approach Perry took in the October Las Vegas debate and it just might be his best bet to stay relevant in tonight’s gathering too.
* A star is born: The previous nine debates have shown their (collective) ability to elevate a lesser-known or more lightly-regarded candidate to star status. Bachmann’s showing at a June debate in New Hampshire kicked off a summer that saw her emerge as the Romney alternative. Cain’s debate performances in the early fall — coupled with his surprise win at the Florida P5 Straw poll — catapulted him into the top tier.
With Bachmann largely irrelevant to the race of late and Cain scuffling — to put it nicely — there appears to be an opening for a new conservative star to be born tonight (as well as in the debate set for Saturday in South Carolina.)
The most likely applicant is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich whose combativeness and wit in past debates have helped revivify a campaign that was dead as recently as three months ago. Given more time to speak — and with polling showing him running third behind Romney and Cain, he’s likely to get it — Gingrich could well shine.
The other option for a “star is born” moment is former Utah governor Jon Huntsman who has been getting some “last credible person standing against Romney” buzz (that sort of buzz does exist, you know) of late. Huntsman, however, has been an uneven debater in the race so far — as interested in throwing out insidery one-liners (and Nirvana references!) as scoring political points with actual voters.