Tuesday Debate Puts Cain in Line of Fire for First Time

The race for the Republican presidential nomination has changed since the September 22 debate. Herman Cain has taken second place and is biting at Mitt Romney’s heels. Rick Perry has fallen to third, and Newt Gingrich is biting at his heels. Jon Huntsman has crept up to third place in New Hampshire. This all means that in the October 11 debate, Herman Cain will be in the line of fire for the first time and how he fares will have huge implications for the race.

Herman Cain’s meteoric rise brings Rick Perry’s  former frontrunner status to mind, but he has less reason to collapse than Perry. As a late entrant, there were huge expectations for Perry. Cain, on the other hand, has been campaigning and debating since the beginning of the campaign and has proven his skill. He’s extremely likable and articulate, making it very risky for other candidates to attack him. His lack of a legislative record gives little for his opponents to scrutinize. Now that he seems viable, Republicans who merely liked him are now supporting him.

Cain needs to do a few things in this debate. First, he needs to boast about other parts of his resume so that his image is not reduced to being the “pizza guy” who is a powerful speaker. In his interview with Dick Morris, he mentioned for the first time that he was a mathematician and worked on weapons systems. Why didn’t we hear about this from him before?

Cain can become the frontrunner by gathering the right-of-Romney vote behind him. He needn’t confront Romney and subject himself to counter-attacks. He can politely contrast himself to the former Massachusetts governor by emphasizing his record in creating small business jobs -- where most new jobs come from -- as opposed to expanding big businesses. He should criticize Perry to keep up the pressure and continue the Texas governor's slide in the polls. He can fend off Gingrich’s surge by appearing substantive, which he has done well lately. And finally, Cain should get into a tussle with Ron Paul over national security to blunt the impact of  his own early foreign policy missteps. If Cain does all of this, he could solidify his position as the alternative to Romney.

Mitt Romney’s strategy will be the same as before. He knows that the other candidates must bring down Cain before they can take him on. He’ll let them do this job for him so he doesn’t get into a mud throwing contest. It is not as imperative that he take aim at Perry, as it turns out that Perry’s entry ended up being an early Christmas present for the Romney campaign because he has split the right-of-Romney vote.

Rick Perry’s campaign is at stake on October 11. He has a big task ahead of him. He must perform so well that Republicans forget what happened in previous debates, and he needs a very good response to questions about in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. His problem is that he has to attack Cain, but in so doing, he could look desperate and alienate his supporters.