Monday, October 17, 2011

Second October Primary Debate Tomorrow on CNN

It has only been a week since the last primary debate, but another will be held tomorrow on CNN at 8:00pm Eastern. This will be the final debate for the month of October.

Unlike the last debate, this one will be held on a cable channel most viewers are familiar with, so the ratings will be much higher. The stakes are higher as well. The impressions left by the candidates at tomorrow's debate will be left in many voters' minds until November.

In a sense, tomorrow's debate will be a repeat of last week's. The challenges faced by the various candidates are largely the same, and they will be given another opportunity to meet them. For Rick Perry, this means he has one final opportunity to do well in a debate. If he fails again, his supporters may not give him another chance. The primary calendar has been moved up to early January, and the Iowa Caucus may be held on January 3rd. Unless debates are rescheduled, there will be few debates between now and then. If Perry has another poor showing, he may simply run out of time.

For Mitt Romney, tomorrow's debate is an opportunity to cement his frontrunner status. He has done well in all of the previous debates (especially the last few). The other candidates seem incapable of derailing Romney, and they appear to be struggling to come up with new ways to attack him. For example, Romney has been attacked for his support of Romneycare at each of the six debates he's attended. It's unlikely that the seventh time will be the charm. If Romney gives another good performance, he will enjoy a positive media narrative for several weeks. He may be perceived as inevitable.

Herman Cain will be at the center of the debate. He is doing very well in the Iowa and South Carolina polls, and is even leading in some national primary polls. Yet he is almost entirely untested. In the past, Cain has shown weakness whenever he has been probed; he is clearly not a professional politician. If the other candidates decide to go on the attack, Cain will suffer tremendously. So far, the other candidates have not viewed him as a threat, and have left him alone. That will change tomorrow evening.

Ever since Perry got into the race, he has viewed Romney as his main competitor. Even after falling behind Cain in the latest polls, Perry has spent his time and money on attacking Romney. Now, perhaps, Perry will be forced to swallow his pride and admit that he's behind Cain. He needs to stop pretending he's still a first-tier candidate: The latest polling in early primary states (Iowa, South Carolina, Florida) have Rick Perry polling third, fourth, or even fifth place. Perry is no longer in a two-man race with Romney, no matter how much he would like it to be true. Perry must admit to himself that he needs to attack and defeat Cain if he is to get back into the race. If Perry focuses on attacking Romney instead, he will look pathetic.

The minor candidates are in a similar position. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have little incentive to attack Romney or Perry now. Their attacks have helped cripple the Perry campaign, and Romney will be waiting in New Hampshire for the winner of Iowa. The present obstacle to the minor candidates is Herman Cain. To defeat him, they need to do to Cain what they did to Perry: successfully question his conservatism.