What to Watch For in Tonight's Republican Debate

The candidates meet in Rochester, Mich., on Wednesday for their ninth face-off of the season after weeks of campaign drama

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Aaand we're back! After a 3-week hiatus, the eight-member touring supergroup known as the Republican primary debaters reunites in Michigan Wednesday for an economy-focused debate hosted by CNBC and Oakland University. Five things to watch:

1. Does anyone touch the Herman Cain scandal? The scandal involving Cain's alleged sexual harassment of multiple women -- there are now four, if you're keeping score at home, and two have been named publicly -- has dominated the campaign since it broke a week and a half ago. The other candidates have largely kept their distance, following the general political rule of not standing too close to an exploding opponent lest you be hit by shrapnel. But that started to change this week with the emergence of Sharon Bialek, whose description of a graphic encounter, and apparent lack of ulterior motive, raised qualms even among conservatives. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, in ABC News/Yahoo! interviews Tuesday, began to approach the subject, with Romney calling them "serious allegations" that would "have to be addressed." After Cain's defiant news conference Tuesday, will his rivals seek to press their advantage? It's a toxic subject that has to be handled delicately, if at all. But there's a clear opening for a candidate willing to frame the issue as one of character.

2. Do Rick Perry and Mitt Romney pick up where they left off? And does anybody care? It seems a misty memory now, but it was just three weeks ago that the last debate devolved into a hissing, spitting catfight between an officious Romney and a relentlessly needling Perry. Neither man came off well in the encounter: Romney appeared snippy and peevish, while Perry seemed bullying. If the idea was to get Perry back in the frame as Romney's chief antagonist, though, that didn't really happen in the ensuing weeks. First Perry stepped on his own message, with birther talk and a bizarre speech in New Hampshire; then the Cain circus came to town and Perry was drowned out. In terms of polls and perception both, Perry's supposed comeback moment didn't seem to move the dial. He's languishing in single digits even as he continues to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on early-state television and radio ads. So now what does he do?

3. Is Romney back on cruise control? The Cain scandal seems to have bolstered Romney's front-runner-by-default status by dramatically underscoring conservatives' lack of a clear better option. That only intensifies the other seven candidates' desire to rattle Romney, and Romney's disinclination to take the bait. But while Perry may not have helped himself in the last debate, he did land a blow on Romney. So it can be done.

4. Is it Newt's turn to have a moment? There's a palpable exhaustion among the conservative grass-roots who've elevated successive candidates -- Michele Bachmann, then Perry, then Cain -- as Romney alternatives, only to abandon them and move on. But we must wearily acknowledge that Newt Gingrich appears to be enjoying some sort of minor surge, and as such may have a more central role in this debate. He'll know he's really arrived when Rick Santorum goes after him.

5. What do the candidates say to Michigan? Three weeks ago in Nevada, epicenter of the housing crisis, none of the candidates had much of an answer to a question about foreclosures. In another economically ravaged state, this one symbolic of the long-term decline of the Rust Belt, the candidates are sure to get asked about the future of American manufacturing as well as questions on trade. Already, the Democratic National Committee has welcomed Romney to the state by helpfully reminding him about the time he opposed the bailout for the auto industry with the words, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Romney -- who's on his home turf -- and the other candidates will have to again try to square their laissez-faire leanings with local demands for government intervention.

Image credit: AFP/John Gurzinski

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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