This is the last debate for at least three weeks and Mitt Romney will try to exit this series of almost weekly Republican presidential candidate forums just as he entered it: showing a steady command of the issues and carefully avoiding any gaffes or other errors.

Beginning the morning after CNN’s debate in Las Vegas, the race for the 2012 Republican nomination will move into a new phase, with the candidates trying to define themselves off the debate stage. The next three weeks will be marked by what the candidates say and do on the trail before the next debate, scheduled for Nov. 9 in Rochester, Mich.,

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, despite his recent plunge in the polls, is viewed by Romney and his advisers as their most formidable opponent. Perry’s campaign will try to bounce back with a forthcoming series of policy speeches and television advertisements designed to introduce Perry’s record, background and agenda to Republican voters.

But Romney has signaled he, too, will try to define Perry. On Tuesday morning, his campaign released a tough web video that takes aim at the vulnerabilities of Perry’s jobs record and likening it to President Obama’s. Look for Romney himself to drive the same message in Tuesday’s debate.

Romney’s advisers do not sound particularly concerned about businessman Herman Cain. In last week’s Washington Post-Bloomberg debate, Romney was one of the few candidates not to attack Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, even when given an opportunity. Since then, Cain has continued to rise in the polls, and it will be telling whether Romney engages him on Tuesday or leaves that to the other contenders.

By the end of the debate, Romney will want to have made the case that he, more than the other candidates, is capable of defeating Obama and prepared to sit in the Oval Office.


Can Rick Perry do better this time?

Will Herman Cain keep rising?

Paul must convince voters he can win

Bachmann needs to dig out of deep hole

Rick Santorum emerges as attack dog

Gingrich keeps Republicans entertained