Paradoxically tonight’s Republican debate may turn out to be a major turning point with few real=time viewers. It’s airing on the low-ratings Bloomberg channel, and it’s on opposite the MLB playoff game between the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers. So what happens in the room during the debate may matter less than how what happens is spun after the fact, and which clips get the most airplay in the week or two to come. With only a couple of months now before the first primaries and caucuses hit, there isn’t much recovery time available to anyone who stumbles or doesn’t achieve their goals.
Coming into tonight’s debate, three candidates remain viable — Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Romney comes in either as the front-runner or sharing the lead with Cain, as Perry has faded following previous weak debate performances. Here is how I see each candidate looking to capitalize on the debate.
Mitt Romney — Today’s endorsement by NJ Gov. Chris Christie helps him substantially; the revelation that his advisers also advised on the creation of ObamaCare, not so much. Romney has to get out of tonight’s debate unscathed, with his record as unexamined as possible. He has managed to do that in every debate prior, both because the only candidate who occupies the same political space as Romney is Huntsman, who has been about as electrifying as a damp sponge, and because the more conservative candidates have tended to attack each other rather than Romney. Romney’s poll ceiling seems to be in the high 20s to mid 30s; again, he benefits from the lack of challengers for the moderate vote. He needs to maintain his plausibility and draw the conservatives into battling each other rather than focusing on him.
Herman Cain — No one in American history has taken a path similar to Cain’s to the White House, from the corporate world to talk radio to the presidency, without ever having held elective office before. Cain could be the first. His challenge tonight is to avoid the gaffe while making the case that the party should nominate a conservative who, while lacking a public record, also lacks the inevitable baggage that goes along with having a public record. We always say we want an outsider; here’s our chance. Basically, Cain needs to become a plausible president tonight or relatively soon, and I don’t think he’s there yet. If he were, he would start chipping away at the core of Romney’s support and there’s no evidence yet that he is. He can change that tonight, by sticking to his economic message while strengthening his credibility on foreign policy and seeming more broadly knowledgeable than he has at times in the past.
Rick Perry — The Texas governor needs to project steadiness and readiness tonight. He needs to emphasize that he is stronger on the border than either of his competitors (which truth to tell and despite what Ann Coulter thinks, he is), that he has a real record of service to run on, and he needs to draw contrasts with Romney over the issue of leadership. It might be useful to highlight the records of three governors — himself, Mitt Romney’s and Scott Walker’s — to show that Romney looks electable on paper but is unreliable to Republicans in fact and deed. The fact that Romney left no legacy for the Massachusetts GOP while Perry helped strengthen Texas’ transition from Democrat to Republican and Walker has laid the groundwork for a solvent, purple to red Wisconsin says much about what a President Romney is likely to do. Perry needs to make this case, but with a charm that endears rather than puts off the viewer.
All of the candidates should remember who the audience here is — a Republican primary electorate predisposed to support them, and which is looking for a real leader who can take on and defeat Barack Obama next year.