What to Watch for in Tonight's Republican Debate in Las Vegas

As the presidential primary candidates square off in yet another debate, attention is likely to focus more intensely than ever on Herman Cain


LAS VEGAS -- Seven things to watch for in Tuesday night's GOP debate:

1. Can Herman Cain get serious? The folksy businessman suddenly finds himself the front-runner of the moment, and he seems as surprised as we are. Suddenly he's being called upon to explain comments, positions and proposals that were easy to get away with when he didn't threaten anyone -- like saying the U.S. should erect a potentially deadly electrified fence along the Mexican border, which he tried to shrug off as a joke on Monday. Or his much-vaunted "9-9-9" plan, which his rivals began attacking as a stealth tax hike in the last debate. Or his stance that gay marriage should be left to individual states, which rival Rick Santorum has already seized upon. Or his muddled grasp of foreign policy -- he doesn't seem to have gotten much up to speed between May, when he didn't know what the Palestinian right of return was, and this past Sunday, when he said he was "not familiar with the neoconservative movement." In debates, Cain has been great so far at brushing off criticism and getting the audience on his side with good-natured unflappability -- like when, last week, he responded to a moderator's question about 9-9-9 by rumbling, "The problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect." That got a big laugh -- but this time, Cain is likely to face an influx of incoming fire that laugh lines alone won't be enough to deflect.

2. Can Romney light a fire? His debate performances so far in this campaign have been practically virtuosic -- deft, assured, marked by a serene confidence and a mastery of technical detail. But there's no evidence he's won any fans with them outside the walls of high-school debate clubs. Instead, his share of the electorate seems to have hardened around 25 percent nationally, with the rest of the Republican primary vote restlessly circling the other contenders. Will he try to change it up this time, looking for a moment that will close the deal with the skeptics? Or is he resigned to keep racking up bloodless victories and waiting for the other candidates to tear each other apart, leaving him the last man standing?

3. Now who's the pinata? At Rick Perry's first presidential debate in early September, he observed, "I kind of feel like the pinata here at the party." It's a pattern that held throughout the last four debates, beginning with that one: A study found that Perry was attacked 39 times by the other candidates, leading the field by far. Romney was second, attacked 29 times. Now that Perry's candidacy has lost steam based largely on his weak debates, the mob needs a new target for its anger. Going after Romney is always popular for the candidates who are climbing over one another to establish themselves as his principal opposition. But it's Cain, the largely untested newcomer to the spotlight, who's sure to take the most fire from the underdogs vying for his position atop the non-Romney bracket -- and from Romney, whose camp seems almost wistful to have dispatched Perry so quickly.

4. Has Rick Perry given up? On debates, that is. It sure looked that way at last week's debate in New Hampshire, when the Texas governor, despite a much-hyped prep regimen that was supposed to put him back in the game, practically blended into the woodwork instead. The new spin from Perry and his camp is that debates just aren't his thing and he'll rebuild his support through other avenues, such as a recent spate of mainstream media interviews and an eventual barrage of high-gloss television ads enabled by his best-in-the-field $15 million war chest. Does he sleep through another debate, fumbling through answers and hoping only to avoid doing more damage? Or does Perry finally rise to the challenge and try to turn it around?

5. Is Nevada onstage? Coincidentally, the Las Vegas debate is happening just as the political class is finally starting to pay attention to the Silver State, thanks to a fight with New Hampshire over the January primary date Nevada's Republican Party has chosen. A vital general-election swing state at the epicenter of a vital swing region, the intermountain West, Nevada has nonetheless not been treated like a bona fide early state by the candidates and media. But with the nation's highest unemployment and foreclosure rates, it is emblematic of the economic problems so many voters no longer trust President Obama to solve. (Alone among the candidates, Romney has sought to highlight the state's plight. The Los Angeles Times found that a Las Vegas-area couple that Romney visited earlier this year had recently been foreclosed upon and moved away.) More so than the backdrops of many other debates, Nevada confronts the candidates with some of the campaign's biggest challenges, from the calendar to the economy.

6. Does anybody miss Jon Huntsman? The bottom-of-the-polls liberal Republican is boycotting the debate out of solidarity with New Hampshire, where he's currently running a one-state campaign. Give him credit for putting his money where his mouth is: Several other lower-tier GOP contenders have also declared they'll forgo campaigning in the Silver State -- but only when it doesn't cost them their precious few minutes of national television exposure, it seems. When Huntsman has been a presence in prior debates, it's mainly been as a sort of high-minded scold, or as the resident China expert, or as the maker of off-kilter musical references. So the answer to this question is probably "no."

7. Now what? After Tuesday night, the candidates will have been through five debates in six weeks. It's been a grueling sprint, and it finds the race in a markedly different place than when it began. Six weeks ago, Perry had yet to debate and Michele Bachmann had just come off a big win at the Iowa straw poll. After Tuesday, we get a bit of a respite: three weeks with no debates, and a single debate in the entire month of November. Rather than seesawing all over the place as they've been doing, the perceptions of the candidates that gel after this debate could hold sway for a while.

Image credit: Reuters/Adam Hunger