Republican Candidates Tangle in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS – Will the glare of the national spotlight derail the “Cain Train”? Will Michelle Bachmann push her way back into the dialog and return to relevance?  Can Texas Gov. Rick Perry finally turn in a decent debate performance.

     As seven of the major Republican presidential candidates meet on a stage for a nationally televised debate Tuesday, much of the focus was on former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who has surged into the lead in some polls. Rivals are expected to try to force Cain him to go deeper on policy than simply repeating his “9-9-9” tax proposal.

    The debate is scheduled to be broadcast on CNN from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. EDT.

    A CNN/ORC International poll released Monday found that two-thirds of Republican primary voters say their minds are not made up, an indication that the race could have more twists and turns with fewer than 90 days before the first votes are scheduled to be cast in the Iowa caucuses.

    This is the fifth GOP debate together in the past six weeks, and the eighth in 2011. The debates have provided crucial pivot points in the race, which has featured at least three conservative champions, each touted as the alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and each fading.

     Romney’s support has barely edged above 25 percent, yet at the same time strategists and party leaders from a variety of factions describe him as the inevitable nominee; he has cash, organization and experience – having run and lost in 2008 -- and at least four candidates dividing the conservative vote.

     In 2008, Romney was smacked around in debates but nobody had the money to attack him directly this early in the process. John McCain, the eventual winner, was struggling to stay afloat. 

     So far he has been able to make general election style appeals while floating above the combat among his challengers who are trying to carve up conservative support.

     Perry’s advisers hope he can survive the debates, which have been damaging to his image, and then use his $17 million for an advertising barrage, a portion of which is sure to be used to define Romney negatively, as the flip-flopping author of the Massachusetts health-care law that inspired President Obama’s national law.

      “Ultimately the race for the nomination is going to come down to Mitt Romney and someone else,” said Dave Carney, Perry’s chief strategist. “Our goal is to be that someone else.”

      Once again the field has a new frontrunner in Cain, who has never held elective office, but surged by picking up support from conservatives who soured on Perry as he struggled. The centerpiece of Cain’s campaign is his “9-9-9” tax proposal – a flat 9 percent personal income and corporate tax, plus a new national sales tax of 9 percent.

      Party activists love Cain’s style; he’s part motivational speaker, part no-nonsense executive possessed of unbounded self-confidence. “The problem with that analysis is -- it’s wrong!” from the Dartmouth debate last week.

     He’s been getting increased scrutiny however, with critics pointing out that the 9-9-9 would lead to a big tax increase for middle and lower-income workers who would have to pay the consumption levy on top of state and local sales taxes. He also has shown a remarkable lack of knowledge of, or interest in, foreign affairs.

    This time, there were only seven instead of eight candidates. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is boycotting the debate because Nevada is attempting to move its caucuses ahead of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. Huntsman, who also was Obama's ambassador to China, has staked his campaign on New Hampshire.