Friday, November 11, 2011

Republican Primary Debate Tomorrow on CBS

Just a few days after their last appearance, the Republican candidates will return to the debate stage tomorrow evening. The debate will be sponsored by CBS and will air on the network at 8:00pm Eastern. The candidates will get a reprieve after that--the next debate shouldn't take place for another couple weeks.

As with the two closely-scheduled debates in October, tomorrow's debate will serve as a rematch. Rick Perry will desperately want to rehabilitate himself after his disastrous performance at the Republican debate on November the ninth. Herman Cain will probably face questions about his sexual harassment scandal again. And the minor candidates will have a chance to rethink their strategy of not challenging the frontrunners.

Perry will probably have some prepared joke about his gaffe at the last debate. But there is no recovering from the mistake he made. Perry's only hope is to fly under the radar and hope the frontrunners destroy themselves. He could try criticizing the candidates who lead him in the polls, but he may as well avoid embarrassing himself.

Newt Gingrich has advanced toward the top tier, but he is not there yet; the polls show Cain and Mitt Romney with a comfortable lead over Gingrich. To break through, Gingrich needs to challenge one or both of them. While he has gotten applause in the past by attacking the debate moderators, the act is wearing thin. He risks getting a reputation for needless grouchiness.

As for Cain, the debate moderators have their work cut out for them. Since the sexual harassment scandal has been the biggest news of the month, they have a journalistic responsibility to ask him about it. But the moderators at the last debate were shouted down by the crowd. The moderators will need to find some clever new approach. It's difficult to imagine the audience behaving any differently than they did at the last debate, however. If they really want to take Cain down a peg, they should ask him about subjects he's unfamiliar with--almost everything other than "9-9-9." Speaking of which, Cain's charisma has carried him thus far, but he must avoid answering every question with a reference to his "9-9-9" plan.

There is little incentive for Romney to attack Cain or Gingrich. He should attempt to appear presidential, no matter how much he is challenged. With any luck, he will be able to avoid drawing fire: Both Cain and Gingrich dislike going on the offensive, and the rest of the field (barring Jon Huntsman) needs to take votes from Cain to win Iowa.

Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum need to do what they have thus far failed even to attempt: attack Cain's conservative credentials. They criticized Cain's "9-9-9" plan in October, but they never questioned whether Cain is the true, pure conservative that the Tea Party demands. They won't beat Cain on charisma, and Bachmann certainly can't beat Cain on electability. Santorum would have difficulty making the electability case, since Tea Partiers have rejected the concept so far (otherwise they wouldn't be supporting Cain). The only remaining option is to prove that Cain is not a true Tea Partier. As time goes on, that's a more difficult sell. It's easier to attack Gingrich on that score, but leapfrogging him almost seems pointless. Time is running out, and they need to eliminate Cain sooner rather than later.