Presidential candidate Herman Cain attends a walkthrough of Tuesday evening's… (Andrew Harrar / Bloomberg )
On a red-letter day already for Mitt Romney, he’ll have a chance to play to his strength -- the economy -- at a Republican presidential debate Tuesday evening in New Hampshire.
The debate, broadcast live from Dartmouth College on Bloomberg TV, is dedicated solely to economic matters, with each GOP candidate expected to be given a chance to outline their plan to create jobs and stimulate growth. It’s co-sponsored by the Washington Post.
But while the debate topic will land in Romney’s wheelhouse, much of the attention will be directed at top rivals Rick Perry and Herman Cain.
Live coverage: Follow the debate with Times' Opinion writers Doyle McManus and Jon Healey
Perry, the Texas governor, will be looking to rebound from back-to-back marginal performances in debates last month in Florida. He’ll also be trying to jumpstart a campaign that has been flagging in the wake of controversies over his positions on immigration and Social Security.
While the debate will focused on the economy, expect Romney’s camp to attempt to insert those issues where it can, and perhaps try to bring up the recent flap over comments made by a Dallas pastor and supporter of Perry’s who likened Mormonism to a “cult.”
Perry will point to his job-creation record in his 11 years in Texas and no doubt will attack Romney’s efforts in his years as governor of Massachusetts.
For Cain, it will be the first debate since he began a noticeable surge in the polls in key early primary states such as Iowa, Florida, and, yes, New Hampshire -- a state where Romney had been expected to dominate. A poll this week showed the former pizza chain executive at 20%.
He’ll have an ample platform to describe his “9-9-9” economic plan, which would scrap the current tax system in favor of 9 % rate on individual and corporate taxes, and a 9 % national sales tax. Some economists are concerned that the plan would depress government revenues.
At any rate, the sharp focus of the debate should force all of the eight GOP candidates participating to discuss their various economic plans in greater detail than in past debates.
While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s Tuesday endorsement of Romney could be viewed as a sign of the Republican establishment solidifying around the front-runner, Cain’s sudden rise in popularity shows that some conservatives remain ardent about finding an alternative.
That potentially leaves an opening for another candidate, be it Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, or Jon Huntsman to try to make an appeal to those undecided voters who are still uncomfortable with Romney.
One challenge any candidate looking to make a mark will be reaching viewers. While past debates have been carried on the large cable news networks, Bloomberg TV reaches just 70 million homes in the United States. (By contrast, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all reach between 90 million and 100 million homes.) At the same time, however, those watching the debate are likely to be heavily invested in the issues and highly motivated voters.
The format calls for another departure from previous contests: The candidates will be seated at a circular table surrounded by the audience at Dartmouth.
Bloomberg News has put together a handy guide to various terms relating to the economy that viewers are likely to hear during the debate, from “Quantitative Easing” to “Simpson-Bowles.” The debate may make for arresting insight into America’s struggling economy, but whether it produces dramatic television will be one of many questions to be answered this evening.