Capping off a tumultuous week, the Republican presidential candidates will meet Saturday night for yet another debate — this time in South Carolina, which holds a crucial early primary in January. It's "crunch time" for former frontrunner Rick Perry, who's still struggling to contain the damage from his disastrous gaffe at Wednesday's forum in Michigan, where he failed for nearly a minute to remember which cabinet departments he wants to eliminate. Perry's "oops" moment opened the door for his rivals, particularly former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who hope to persuade GOP primary voters that they're a better conservative alternative to moderate frontrunner Mitt Romney. Perry's epic flub also helped Herman Cain deflect attention from the sexual harassment allegations dogging his campaign. What will Saturday bring? Here, four key questions:
1. Can Rick Perry redeem himself?
Perry has been in "full spin mode" since he admittedly "stepped in it" on Wednesday, says Brad Knickerbocker in The Christian Science Monitor. Now he must convince shocked voters that he could hold his own in a debate against President Obama. "As part of his comeback strategy, Perry is using his substantial bank account to blanket the airwaves with ads." He also did the morning news show circuit, and went on CBS's Late Show With David Letterman to do a self-deprecating top 10 list. Perry's trying to send "the message: I'm human. We all make mistakes." Will it work, or is Saturday Perry's "last stand"?
2. Can Mitt Romney appeal to Southerners?
"Something funny could happen on the way to the Republican presidential nomination next year," say Peter Hamby and Shawna Shepherd at CNN. "Mitt Romney might actually win South Carolina." It has long been considered a given that the former Massachusetts governor, with his "northern pedigree and evolving positions on core conservative issues," had no chance in the first Southern primary state. He was unpopular in South Carolina during his 2008 run, but local GOP strategists now say Romney is winning over skeptics by "displaying a toughness" in the debates that have defined the race. He now has a quarter of the state's GOP voters in his corner. Can he win over even more with a strong performance Saturday?
3. Can Herman Cain move beyond his scandal?
The former Godfather's Pizza CEO was polling neck-and-neck with Romney in South Carolina — before the newly revealed allegations of sexual harassment were fully aired. Cain's campaign has since "imploded" as surely as Perry's has, Clemson University political science professor James David Woodard tells Patch. "I don't think Herman Cain can regain his position after that." His challenge, says Gina Smith in the Columbia, S.C., State, will be to "steer clear of talk about sexual harassment charges and redirect the attention of S.C. voters to his 9-9-9 platform."
4. Can Newt Gingrich pick up more steam?
With fellow conservatives Perry and Cain stumbling, "the anti-Mitt crowd is continuing to grasp for other choices," says David Teich at Talking Points Memo. "The latest alternative? Newt Gingrich." The former House speaker has risen dramatically in many polls, and his rivals' troubles seem likely to drive even more of the GOP base into his camp. Gingrich excels in debates. Saturday's matchup "will be focused on foreign policy, and that's an issue that you can't fake your way through," Spartanburg Tea Party organizer Karen Martin tells Patch. If Gingrich can capitalize on his advantage, he'll build even more momentum.