Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Republican Debate Tomorrow on CNBC

The first Republican primary debate of the month will be held tomorrow evening at 8:00pm Eastern. The debate will be aired on CNBC and is expected to focus on the economy. Tomorrow's debate will put an end to the three-week break in debates that the candidates have enjoyed since the debate on October 18th.

Things have changed during the intervening weeks. Mitt Romney and Herman Cain have consistently appeared at the top of the polls, with the rest of the candidates far behind. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have solidified their positions as second-tier candidates, and hope is running out. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich has moved up in the polls to at least be at the top of the second tier. Despite the polls, Cain has suffered terrible press from the sexual harassment scandal and is looking vulnerable. The scandal has only intensified in recent days. As Elephant Watcher anticipated, damaging new details have come forth just before the debate.

At the time of the October debates, the other Tea Party candidates could at least pretend that Cain wasn't really beating them in the polls. After weeks of new polls and media coverage reinforcing the idea that Cain is at the top, the other Tea Party candidates can deny it no longer. Perry, Bachmann, and Rick Santorum must view Cain as their chief opponent. Now, with the Cain scandal making headlines every day, it's time to strike. They must attack Cain and eliminate him in order to compete for the Anti-Romney position.

For Cain's part, he will have to find a way to deal with the elephant in the living room. The debate moderators, even if they focus on the economy, must surely ask Cain about the scandal. (This will be true at the upcoming debates as well.) Most likely, Cain will refuse to address the matter further and say he wants to get back to focusing on the issues that Americans really care about. He will receive loud applause from a Republican base that simply does not believe the accusations are true (yet).

Even so, political observers will be watching for any sign that Cain has been shaken or weakened by the scandal. The next media narrative will be the fall of Cain, so Cain must be his usual upbeat, charismatic self if he is to avoid negative coverage.

In theory, Romney can continue to play the role of the already-victorious general election candidate and stay above the fray. But in the past, rivals (particularly Perry) have ignored Cain and focused their attacks on Romney. If they believe Cain is bound to fall anyway due to the scandal, they may focus on Romney even now. Romney should avoid letting others see his feathers ruffled as they were at the last debate. If Romney appears the most presidential, it will be counted as a win.

Gingrich has the biggest strategic decision to make. So far, he has avoided attacking other candidates. Finally, he is going up in the polls. But that's because other candidates have gone down. And he is still in the second tier. For several months, Elephant Watcher has argued that Gingrich's performance in the debates should be more aggressive and focused on demonstrating why he should get the nominee rather than someone else. If Gingrich only acts as a cheerleader who says everyone on the stage would be better than Barack Obama, then voters will simply go to Romney (who has the best chance of winning a general election). Having seen his numbers rise, Gingrich may decide it's time to truly engage in a debate against his opponents. If so, it will be his first real test in a debate.