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Who Will Take the Bait on Cain’s Sexual Harassment Allegations in Tonight’s Debate?

Like the past three debates, tonight’s will be all about Herman Cain and whether he can get back on message after his fourth accuser of sexual harassment publicly came forward and a fifth alleged misconduct. It is unlikely that any candidate will be dumb enough to accuse him of guilt, sparking a vicious backlash among primary voters.

The temptation to use the harassment allegations against Cain must be huge for the candidates. The media and establishment continue to foolishly write off his candidacy, despite the fact that the polls show him as the frontrunner. The Real Clear Politics poll average has him slightly ahead nationally and with healthy leads in Iowa and South Carolina. Unlike Romney, Cain is in a position to grow as other candidates drop out and a victory in Iowa would give him a wave of momentum.

Initially, the allegations actually helped Cain. His numbers did not fall at all and he raised $1.6 million in the first five days of the controversy. He had his biggest fundraising day with $400,000 donated. He was also aided by the conventional wisdom that his fall was inevitable, as it limited the swipes from other candidates. His Positive Intensity Score has fallen by 9 points, but is still high at 57%. However, the head of InsiderAdvantage mentioned that in his November 4 poll, most voters in Iowa were not closely following the sexual harassment allegations and the Des Moines Register hadn’t devoted full-coverage to it. The full impact of the story may not be registering in the polls yet, especially with the fourth and fifth women coming forward on Monday.

It is unlikely that Cain’s rivals will side with his accusers over him but they can use it against him by mentioning his poor handling of the controversy. Politico was in contact with his camp for 10 days before the story broke and he was caught flat-footed. The candidates can make the case that he’s simply unprepared for the rigors of a general election campaign.

Next: From where is Gingrich drawing his new support?

There are two other issues that Cain will be criticized for tonight. Of course, 9-9-9 will come under scrutiny. Every single candidate stomped on it during the last debate and his answers were weak, yet his poll numbers did not drop. They would be wise to focus on his confusing non-answers on abortion, which caused John Stossel to become frustrated in an interview.  Rick Santorum has released a video alleging that Cain is pro-choice. Most likely, the candidates will wait to see if the harassment allegations do their job for them, and they’ll restrain themselves from an all-out assault.

Mitt Romney’s strategy will be the same as it always has been. He will count on other candidates trashing each other, and offer polished rebuttals to the criticisms of him that he has grown accustomed to answering. He can be encouraged by some polls showing him at the top in Iowa, although others show him in third. It actually benefits him to not be ahead in Iowa so that the right-of-Romney competitors tear each other down.

Newt Gingrich continues to rise. Two polls have him statistically tied with Romney for second place in Iowa. We Ask America has him at 18%, only four behind Cain and three ahead of Romney. InsiderAdvantage has Herman Cain with a wide lead at 30%, Romney with 15% and Gingrich at 12%. In South Carolina, Gingrich is putting together the biggest operation of any candidate.

Nationally, Rasmussen finds Cain with 26%, Romney with 23% and Gingrich with 14%. Polls have shown Gingrich in third nationally for awhile now, but Jeffrey H. Anderson makes some important observations. Since October 12, Romney’s lead over Gingrich has decreased by 10 points. Support for Romney fell 6 points, Cain by 3, Bachmann by 2 and Perry and Santorum by 1 each. Only Gingrich and Ron Paul rose by 4 and 2 points respectively. This means that Gingrich is pulling support from Romney and is the one who benefits the most from attacks on him, and he may also be getting support from the right-of-Romney candidates as well.

Gingrich has no compelling reason to change his strategy. It’s clearly working for him, and he can sit and wait to see what happens to Cain’s campaign. If Cain’s numbers drop, Gingrich is well-placed to win his supporters. Gingrich should specifically call-out his opponents to one-on-one debates like he and Cain had on Saturday, making it difficult for them to say no.

Next: Another opportunity to pounce on Ron Paul?

Rick Perry’s campaign is in bad shape at this point. Perry’s main objective is to restore confidence in him as a candidate. That means debating effectively without appearing unpresidential like he did when he aggressively interrupted Romney during the last debate and looked like he wanted to kill him.

Jon Huntsman is putting all his chips down on New Hampshire. He’s going at Romney hard, but failing to make a case for his own candidacy. The support he costs Romney will go to another candidate, probably Gingrich, until he appears viable and makes a compelling rationale for himself. Based on Huntsman’s latest web videos, he will likely accuse Romney of avoiding questions and being a flip-flopper.

Ron Paul will probably get into a heated exchange tonight because Iran is back in the news with the IAEA saying the regime is working on the final stages of a nuclear warhead. His reaction was to say the U.S. should lift sanctions and offer Iran “friendship.” Expect him to get hit hard on that. Herman Cain would be wise to pounce on the opportunity to assuage concerns about his lack of foreign policy knowledge.

Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann are running in place. Bachmann is at risk of sounding over-the-top and desperate. Without mentioning names, she recently said that some of her rivals are “frugal socialists.” Santorum appears unable to control himself in these debates. He incessantly interrupts and harasses. If any candidate is going to go after Cain for the sexual harassment allegations, it’s him. After all, when you’re polling in the low single digits, you have nothing to lose.

The next debate is Saturday, November 12. By then, we’ll have a better idea of the state of Cain’s campaign and whether yet another dramatic shake-up in the race is happening.