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Is Cain able?
Tuesday's big GOP debate will focus on the economy — which should be right in new frontrunner Herman Cain's wheelhouse
Edward Morrissey
Edward Morrissey
H

erman Cain has participated in every single televised Republican presidential debate this year. In fact, Cain has been in the race longest, having launched his exploratory committee all the way back in January. And yet, it's only in Tuesday's debate in New Hampshire that Cain may have his real coming out party, as the other Republicans have to deal with the new phenomenon of Cain as a frontrunner.

We're entering the prime season for these debates, and time has run short for redemption and rebounds. Any mistakes in New Hampshire for any of the Republicans on stage could very well put an end to their hopes of winning the nomination. With Cain ascending into the top tier and Rick Perry in danger of permanently descending from it, expect both men to get plenty of scrutiny and attention from both moderators and their opponents. Will they succeed in strengthening their case as the alternative to Mitt Romney, or will they leave the door open for another so-called flavor of the month?

As a lifelong businessman and one-time Kansas City Fed chair, the economy is Cain's best topic.

This is actually the second time in this cycle that Cain has caught fire. The Georgia businessman won early support with a debate victory in the spring, but squandered it on ill-advised comments about Muslims in government (a position he later abandoned) and an inability to explain the complicated issue of the Palestinian demand for a right of return.

Tuesday's format favors both men. The debate's hosts declared that they would focus entirely on the economy, which plays to the strengths of both Perry and Cain. Perry's message on job creation in Texas got derailed by controversies over HPV vaccinations and immigration, neither of which will be directly relevant in a debate on economics. As a lifelong businessman and one-time Kansas City Fed chair, the economy is Cain's best topic.

Don't expect the other candidates to let them off easy, however. Even with his descent in the polling, Perry will still likely get challenged on his record in Texas, at least by some of the also-rans looking to have a breakout performance of their own. Perry could even have to answer an immigration question or two, especially since Perry himself explicitly linked the Texas law for in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants to long-term economics, or because of studies showing that a large portion of the jobs created in Texas went to immigrants. Reports of his advanced debate prep had better be true, because Perry still has a high enough profile in this race to attract some shots.

Will those same candidates try to take shots at Cain as well? That could be a trickier proposition. First, the only person on stage with Cain's business experience is Mitt Romney, and Romney won't want to go after someone who is polling below him. Romney wants to get back to acting and sounding like a nominee by attacking Barack Obama instead of Perry or anyone else on stage in New Hampshire. With Perry sinking, Romney might not bother responding to Perry's inevitable attack on RomneyCare at all, reverting back to his strategy of denying his opponents any opening. Romney wants to win these debates by not losing, and so far he has a long winning record at doing just that.

Cain will likely take some heat from other candidates, perhaps on his 9-9-9 tax plan. Conservatives like Cain, but they have fought the idea of an additional consumption tax for years. Michele Bachmann would have an opening to attack Cain on adding a new 9 percent sales tax, while Rick Santorum can challenge the impact that the new consumption tax will have on lower-income families. Newt Gingrich has been chummy with Cain on stage and loath to attack anyone, but Gingrich needs a game changer if he wants to ever have a shot in this campaign, and he can address the potential pitfalls of policy better than anyone else in the debate.

Still, don't expect too much criticism of Cain in this debate. Unlike Perry or even Romney, Cain doesn't have a record of governance — and therefore doesn't have to account for any of the necessary compromises that come with the job. That in itself could form the basis of attacks if not for the anti-establishment mood that fuels Republican primary voters in this cycle. Even Romney has flogged himself as someone who isn't a lifelong politician despite running for significant office in 1994, 2002, and 2008. Going after Cain on a lack of public-sector experience practically makes Cain's pitch for him.

Instead, Republicans will have to wait a week for the debate in Las Vegas to go after Cain on foreign policy instead of economics. That should give Cain some extra time to grow more accustomed to the role of a top-tier candidate — and give the second tier enough room to try to finish off Perry.

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