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On Romney's turf, all eyes to stay on Cain at GOP debate

November 09, 2011|By James Oliphant
(AFP/Getty Images )

Wednesday evening’s Republican debate in suburban Detroit will feature eight presidential candidates and one titanic elephant in the arena.

The focus ostensibly will be on the economy but the likely-to-go-unmentioned subject on everyone’s mind will be the sexual harassment scandal surrounding Herman Cain, and whether his campaign can stay afloat.

But absent questions about those allegations, the debate likely will revolve around the plans the various contenders have for jump-starting the economy. The locale couldn’t be more fitting. The unemployment rate in Michigan is 11.1 %. In the Detroit metropolitan area it sits at 11.7 %.

People will be looking for answers.

While Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan has drawn most of the ink, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman, among others, all have offered plans that, to varying degrees, offer some kind of tax reform, reduce corporate and investment tax rates, slash federal spending and scale back entitlement programs.

The challenge will be for each of the candidates to differentiate their plans from those of the others—and for the contenders other than Romney and Cain to try and grab some of the spotlight as the race grows ever more late.

Here are seven things to watch during Wednesday evening’s debate, which begins at 5 p.m. PST and will be shown live on CNBC.

1.       Herman Being Herman. We can expect that the moderators will stay far afield from the sexual misconduct allegations that have now dogged Cain for more than week, but will one of his rivals have the temerity to try and shoehorn it into the conversation, seeking some sort of advantage? Will Cain himself bring it up? It sounds crazy, but remember this is a man who keeps insisting he will no longer talk about the allegations—and just keeps granting interviews. (Coming soon: David Letterman.) Cain apparently has tremendous confidence in his ability to argue his side of the story.

2.       See No. 1. Yes, it’s going to be that much of a distraction—especially in the coverage leading up to the debate and afterward, making it that much more difficult for a second-tier candidate to get his or her message out.

3.       Mitt puts the MI in Michigan. This is Romney’s home turf—his father was governor and an auto executive, and he has high hopes for winning the state should he be the GOP nominee. But there is peril for Romney here too—as the Democratic National Committee has been gleefully pointing out this week. Romney opposed the 2008 and 2009 government bailout of the auto industry. (Romney counters that he supported the path General Motors and Chrysler ultimately took.) Will Romney be able to offer a more-finessed position before the Michigan crowd?

4.       Which Rick Perry’s showin’ up? Will it be the tight, slightly somnambulistic Perry seen in earlier debates, when he, by his own admission, was underprepared, or will it be the loosey-goosey Perry from the New Hampshire speech earlier this month, the one so memorably parodied last week on "Saturday Night Live"? It’s an important question. Arguably, no one is in a better position to profit from a Cain implosion than Perry—but he needs to establish himself as a polished candidate who can effectively answer his legion of critics on issues such as immigration.

5.       Is Newtmentum a scientifically observable phenomenon? For weeks now the chatter has been that Newt Gingrich is nearing his time in the limelight as the conservative alternative to Romney—except there still doesn’t appear to be much hard evidence supporting that assertion. But of late, the GOP race has resembled nothing less than an Agatha Christie novel, with dinner guests being bumped off in succession, so Gingrich may end up standing in the right place and the right time. And certainly, a policy-themed debate such as this one will play to his strengths.

6.       Will we graduate to Econ 201? Last month’s economy-themed debate sponsored by Bloomberg held the promise of the candidates offering more detail about how they would create jobs beyond campaign talking points, but somehow that didn’t happen. Beyond that, will the debaters Wednesday night be challenged on how they would somehow lower taxes but reduce the deficit? On how to revive America's manufacturing base? On how to deal with China? On how to develop energy independence beyond fossil fuels? Or how to solidify the nation’s vanishing middle class? Or how to prevent the European fiscal crisis from spreading here?

7.       Whither Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum? Have they heard the chimes at midnight? The Iowa caucuses are less than two months away, with the New Hampshire primary right behind it. If any of these candidates have a next gear, it’s time to throw the switch.

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