The Republican presidential candidates will face off once again Tuesday night at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College, and things will look a little different this time. Instead of lecterns, all the candidates will be seated around a table. And replacing Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the central frontrunner's slot will be former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain. The long string of debates is surprisingly relevant this year, says The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty, who is co-moderating Tuesday's economy-focused event. The GOP almost always has a clear frontrunner at this stage, but this year, each debate seems to welcome — or create — a new star. What's at stake in this one? Here, five key questions.
1. Will Rick Perry turn around his flagging campaign?
The debate is "crucial" for all the candidates, but especially Perry, says Dave Montgomery in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His series of "universally panned" debate performances started a precipitous slide in the polls, and Tuesday's "opportunity for a political do-over" could revive his fortunes. On the other hand, "if Perry stumbles again, coming off as inarticulate or defensive, the damage to his campaign could prove terminal," says Jonathan Martin at Politico.
2. Will everyone attack Mitt Romney?
When Perry was top dog, his rivals mercilessly piled on him. This time around, "Romney might finally be treated like an undisputed frontrunner" and get the same treatment, says Kevin Glass at The American Spectator. Perry, for one, has already foreshadowed his planned attack on Romney, releasing a dramatic ad Monday pillorying the former Massachusetts governor's health care record. He won't be the only rival trying to "knock Romney off his game" Tuesday night, says the AP's Philip Elliott. With time running out before the voting starts, expect "a scattershot effort to deny Romney the nomination by any means necessary."
3. Will Herman Cain soar or flop?
Tuesday's debate is "Herman Cain's moment," say Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake at The Washington Post. Thanks to his recent surge in the polls, Cain will finally be treated as more than an "afterthought." He's "done well — generally — in the debates so far," but can he use his "rhetorical gifts" to sell his economic ideas? Probably not, says Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post. What Cain is good at — pounding some limited talking points on his 9-9-9 tax plan and delivering a joke — is great for the peanut gallery, but his "lack of even basic policy chops" won't play well on center stage.
4. Will Mormonism be an issue?
After the weekend's "flare-up over Mormonism at the Values Voter Summit in Washington" — a Rick Perry supporter blasted the religion as a "cult" — will religion play a role Tuesday? asks Thomas Burr in The Salt Lake Tribune. The debate is supposed to focus "entirely on economics," says Michael Shear in The New York Times. But if either of the Mormon candidates does get a question about his faith, expect Romney to "try and deflect it quickly" and Jon Huntsman to be more outspoken in defense of his church. It's anyone's guess how the other candidates would react: So far they've mostly "dodged questions" about the Mormon flap.
5. Will this debate have a breakout moment?
"If the earlier debates are any indication, we should all expect the unexpected" Tuesday night, says The Washington Post's Tumulty. Little moments at the previous half-dozen debates have had a huge impact on the GOP race — Tim Pawlenty sinking and then dropping out after "whiffing a question" on "RomneyCare," for instance. Will something reshape the highly fluid race again in this debate? Pay particular attention to the segment in which the candidates will be encouraged to directly grill one another.