Round 8 of GOP debates: Candidates look to land punch on Herman Cain

Tuesday's GOP debate in Las Vegas is likely to see candidates try to knock down Herman Cain, who has surged in the polls. For each presidential contender, here's what to watch for.

Jim Cole/AP
Republican presidential candidate, businessman Herman Cain, (c.) listens as Texas Gov. Rick Perry questions former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a Republican presidential debate on Oct. 11.

It’s GOP fight night in Las Vegas, and despite the ads, what happens at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino will most definitely not stay there.

All seven Republican presidential candidates on the debate stage -– and even former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who’s boycotting – face high stakes. Thus far, the GOP debates have proved crucial in shaping the nomination race, and this eighth round should be no different.

The debate, sponsored by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference, begins at 8 p.m. Eastern time. Here are some points to watch.

Can Herman Cain take the heat? The affable former pizza magnate is surging in polls and is now tied with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the lead among Republican voters. Mr. Cain’s "9-9-9" tax plan has won notice for its bold simplicity, but questions are growing about its potential impact. Antitax activist Grover Norquist calls it “very dangerous,” because it establishes a new revenue stream into federal coffers – a national sales tax. Cain himself acknowledges that some Americans would face a higher tax burden.

Expect the candidates not named Cain to train their sights on the man with the plan. Cain could also take flak in other areas. On “Meet the Press” Sunday, when asked if he would describe himself as a “neoconservative” in foreign policy, he didn’t know what that meant. On immigration, he has gone back and forth on whether he seriously wants to put an electrified fence on the US-Mexico border.

Will Cain’s foes be able to rattle the smooth-talking (and singing) businessman? Or will the debate format, which favors sound bites over depth, give him an escape hatch?

Can Mr. Romney burst through his ceiling? Romney has performed smoothly and competently in every debate, and yet his poll numbers remain stuck in the mid-20s. Short of a personality transplant, it’s hard to see how the former governor can suddenly wow Republicans. But maybe voters aren’t looking for wow. Ultimately, the GOP electorate is looking for the person who seems most capable of turning the economy around – and who can defeat President Obama.

Cain has limited funds and even more limited organization, so analysts don’t expect him to last. Thus, it may be that Romney simply has to wait out the Cain surge, then take out the governor who entered the race as the likely anti-Romney – Rick Perry of Texas. The question is how aggressively Romney will go after both men on Tuesday night.

On the eve of the debate, Romney signaled that he still views Governor Perry as serious competition. He launched an anti-Perry website,, and posted a video that goes after Perry’s record. Unemployment in Texas has doubled under Perry’s watch, and nearly half of the new jobs in the state over the past four years went to illegal immigrants, the video asserts.

Can Perry find his mojo? The Texan didn’t crater in the last debate, but he didn’t impress either. He was essentially a nonfactor. Is that good enough? Or does the governor need to actually shine in a debate to turn around his decline in the polls?

Now that he has unveiled his energy-focused jobs plan, he can use the Las Vegas debate stage to drive home the details and let voters know he has a plan. Otherwise, donors might start to sour on him. Already, Wall Street money is increasingly heading Romney’s way. Perry beat the rest of the GOP field in fundraising for the third quarter of 2011 with $17 million. But if he keeps drooping in debates, will the money keep pouring in?

Jon Who? Alone among the major candidates, former Governor Huntsman of Utah is boycotting Tuesday’s debate over Nevada’s decision to flout party rules and move its caucuses to Jan. 14. Instead, he will hold a town hall event in New Hampshire, his do-or-die early-primary state.

But with Huntsman in low single digits in national polls, being the invisible man in Las Vegas hardly makes sense – especially as a Westerner in a debate that will focus some on Western issues. Maybe New Hampshirites will feel special that he’s showing them love while the man winning big in their polls –Romney – is off playing Vegas. Or maybe not.

Can the others break through? Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will all have their moments in the spotlight Tuesday night at the Venetian. Congressman Paul has just released an eyebrow-raising budget plan that would cut $1 trillion during his first year in office. Expect a question or two on that, and the usual conventional-wisdom-busting perspective that Paul brings to all the debates.

Congresswoman Bachmann raised only $3.9 million in the third quarter, a disappointment given her victory in the mid-August Iowa straw poll. With her overall fade in the presidential sweepstakes, she would have to turn in an especially impressive debate performance to win a second look.

Mr. Gingrich has won positive notice in the debates, giving him a slim lifeline in the race. In recent weeks, only he and Cain have shown growth in their poll numbers. But given his minimal fundraising and organization, it may be that debate points end up being his biggest contribution to the race.

Mr. Santorum has also gained attention – including some comedic spoofs – from his energetic debate performances. Can he – or any of the others polling in single digits – make some headway in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest on Jan. 3? Right now, polls show Cain and Romney in the top two spots there. Cain could fade, and Romney was never expected to do well there. So for the back of the pack, solid debate showings going forward could spark a glimmer of hope in Iowa.

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