Less than two months before the presidential primary season officially kicks off with the Iowa caucuses, the Republican candidates are meeting in Michigan Wednesday night for yet another debate. This isn't about making good impressions anymore, says Alexander Burns at Politico. The stakes are rising and the GOP hopefuls are entering "the elimination round," where a single debate can decide who survives and who doesn't. Here, four burning questions:
1. Can Herman Cain deflect scrutiny over the sexual harrassment scandal?
Michigan is a "hard-hit manufacturing state," says John Whitesides at Reuters, and Herman Cain will try to use the debate's intended focus on the economy "to move past an escalating sexual harassment controversy" that's consuming his campaign. Will one of his rivals attack the faltering frontrunner over the scandal? Maybe, says David A. Graham at The Daily Beast. Mitt Romney "edged that way" Tuesday by calling the accusations "serious." Regardless, the scandal is threatening to "derail the Cain train" on its own and it's bad for the Republican brand to obsess over it. The other candidates may just "let him bleed slowly as they avert their eyes."
2. Can Mitt Romney escape an auto-bailout grilling?
Democrats are making sure that Romney will have to explain his opposition to the bailout of American automakers, says Caitlin Huey-Burns at RealClearPolitics. The Democratic National Committee just released a web video in which Romney says, "Let Detroit go bankrupt" (also the title of a Romney-penned 2008 New York Times op-ed). Romney still hasn't made clear "exactly what he would have done as president," say Perry Bacon Jr. and Nia-Malika Henderson in The Washington Post. In this debate, in an auto-centric state, he'll have to weigh in on Obama's policies regarding General Motors and Chrysler. His rivals are surely hoping the awkward situation will produces a "soundbite flip-flopping moment."
3. Can Rick Perry finally win one?
Of course, Rick Perry would desperately like to deliver a strong performance and vault himself back into contention. But he probably won't, say Bacon and Henderson in The Washington Post. Even the Texas governor himself has "openly and repeatedly and almost proudly admitted he both hates debates and isn't good at them." Still, if conservative voters start abandoning Cain, they'll be looking for an anti-Romney like Perry. Can he get the GOP base to give his "strong resume on job-creation and social issues" and his flat-tax plan a second look?
4. Can Newt Gingrich catapult to the front of the pack?
"There's a palpable exhaustion among the conservative grass-roots" these days, says Molly Ball at The Atlantic. They've "elevated successive candidates — Michele Bachmann, then Perry, then Cain — as Romney alternatives, only to abandon them and move on." Still, another staunch conservative, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, "appears to be enjoying some sort of minor surge, and as such may have a more central role in this debate." We'll know it's time to take Newt seriously if the other candidates bother going after him.
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