Just one week after the Bloomberg economic roundtable in New Hampshire, seven Republican candidates will take the stage in Las Vegas for the final round of this fall’s five-debate series.
The debate, hosted by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference, will be a major opportunity to define themselves in front of a national audience before the primary season kicks off in Iowa Jan. 3.
Unfortunately, this debate will be devoid of bizarre “jokes” from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is boycotting over Nevada’s decision to move up its caucuses.
But there are lots of other moments to look forward to when the debate kicks off at 8 p.m. tonight. Here are five things to watch for:
Can Rick Perry Stay In The Game?
At this point, it is ridiculous to think that Rick Perry is going to miraculously turn into some kind of world-class orator just in time for tonight’s debate. But he will have to put up a relatively decent performance — re: no incoherent mumbling about Pakistan or cancer — if he wants to keep his campaign alive. To be sure, it is a mistake to count Rick Perry out of the race yet — his $17 million fundraising haul last quarter is very impressive — but another bad debate showing could lead a lot of those big-money donors to jump ship.
Will Mitt Romney Finally Take On Herman Cain?
Conventional political wisdom holds that Cain will finally have to start answering serious questions — about his 9-9-9 plan, about his no-nothing foreign policy plan, and about who is advising his campaign. But there is no indication that Cain has any intention of doing so — he has gotten by this far in the debates by skirting serious scrutiny with glib remarks and roundabout answers.
The only way that Cain could come under fire is if other candidates — namely Mitt Romney — turn up the heat. So far Romney has handled Cain with kid gloves, likely to avoid alienating the pizza magnate’s cult following. But if Romney keeps up this hands-off approach, he risks letting Cain — and his 9-9-9 plan — once again dictate the direction of the debate.
Will Michele Bachmann Finally Go After Mitt Romney?
With her campaign flailing in the polls, Bachmann has struggled to remain relevant in the past four debates. Her strategy has so far focused on bashing Perry on immigration and his HPV mandate, but the only effect has been to help Romney. But as Perry sinks in the polls, Bachmann appears out of touch with who the real frontrunner is. In tonight’s debate, Bachmann will need to step up and take on Romney if she wants to look like she still belongs on stage.
Will Ron Paul Start A Fist Fight With Herman Cain?
As Cain rises in the polls, Paul has made no secret of his longstanding beef with the former Godfather’s CEO. During last week’s debate, Paul was relentless in attacking Cain, lambasting his role as a former chair of the Kansas City Federal Reserve and basically calling him an Alan Greenspan fanboy. Cain responded by calling Paul “annoying.” It is now unclear how much more Paul can take, which could make for some exciting TV tonight.
Will Newt Gingrich get in a fight with Anderson Cooper?
Despite his virtually nonexistent campaign, Gingrich has managed to stay in the race largely as a result of his strong debate showings. But Gingrich’s primary target so far has been the “mainstream media,” and he tends to direct his outrage at the debate moderator, rather than at his Republican opponents. It will be interesting — and probably pretty amusing — to see how tonight’s moderator, Anderson Cooper, handles the angry former House Speaker.
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