What to Watch For as You Watch Tonight's Republican Debate

By Garance Franke-Ruta

Can Perry recover? Can anyone put a dent in Romney? And what new attacks will the other candidates unleash?

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Some dynamics to watch for as you follow the debate Bloomberg-Washington Post economic GOP presidential primary debate, moderated by Charlie Rose, with questions posed by the Post's Karen Tumulty and Bloomberg TV's Julianna Goldman:

1. Can Rick Perry regain his footing? From his verbal stumbles at previous debates to his apparent lack of deep preparation on basic foreign policy questions to his ties to the Lone Star State's complicated racial history to his awkward embrace at the Values Voter Summit by Robert Jeffress, who has questioned rival Mitt Romney's Christian bona fides as a member of the Mormon "cult," it has a been an uncomfortable couple of weeks on the stump for the Texas governor. He's raised a huge sum of money -- $17 million -- and begun dribbling out negative ads against Romney, but so far Perry's won nothing that involved actual voters casting actual ballots, which suggests he's as yet no more a darling of the GOP base than Romney, who at least won the straw poll in Michigan.

The Jeffress situation isn't going away any time soon, and while Perry reportedly wants to hone in the economy and Romney's record during this debate, I'd be surprised if he doesn't also get questions about repudiating Jeffress, at the very least. He might also be asked to repudiate the Confederate license plate Texas Department of Motor Vehicle authorities are considering approving -- as per a complaint by Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee -- and about the Washington Post report on the Texas ranch he frequented, which was long named after a racial slur for African-Americans.

2. Can anyone put a dent in Mitt Romney? Perry certainly tried to do so during the last debate, but he wound up only embarrassing himself with a tangled description of Romney's changing views. He'll try again for sure, but Romney has already captured the news cycle today with the Chris Christie endorsement and news conference, which renewed the ongoing controversy over Perry's apparent willingness to be associated with Jeffress. The Democratic National Committee is also trying to paint Romney as a flip-flopper, posting a YouTube video of Romney's conflicting statements on abortion rights and launching the WhichMitt website. But does it really hurt Romney long-term to have his much more liberal past positions brought into the open? In a race where the Romney is casting himself as the only electable candidate and in which some disaffected Obama voters are looking for a moderate alternative to the president, Romney's lack of dogmatic conservative credentials will be a general-election boon. He's still got to get out of the primaries, however, where he's not doing that much better than Perry at winning contests (some beauty contests, but contests nonetheless) involving actual voters, though he's managed to maintain and even solidify his front-runner poll status all year long.

3. Can the Cain-Romney bromance last? The mutual admiration between Herman Cain and Romney dates back as far as the mid-1990s. But Cain told The Washington Post, "I'm going after Romney" tonight, adding: "I have a very penetrating question for him." Now that Cain is surging in polls, other candidates also might come after him, seeking to regain what they see as their rightful place as the leading alternative to Romney. Will Romney have Cain's back?

4. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann: the attack corps. While no one in this trio is well-positioned to win the Republican presidential nomination, each has shown a steady ability to introduce attacks into the GOP debates and broader race that have helped reshaped its contours. Bachmann, in particular, by sticking to her social-conservative positions, has made life difficulty for Perry, by attacking him from the right.

5. The economy, stupid. It will be interesting to hear if anyone can come up with some actual specifics about how to get the economy going again, rather than generalities about the purported beneficial impact of tax cuts. And the Occupy Wall Street movement could come up. Cain and Romney have both criticized it, with Cain saying, "Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself! ... It is not someone's fault if they succeeded, it is someone's fault if they failed." That seems ripe for some follow-up.

Image credit: Scott Audette/Reuters

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