CNBC GOP Debate Preview: 5 Things to Watch

The CNBC debate kicks off tonight in the shadow of the Cain circus. Will the other candidates ignore the elephant in the room, and will Gingrich finally reach the top tier? David A. Graham on what to look for. Plus join Howard Kurtz for a live chat during the debate, starting at 8pm ET.

Isaac Brekken / AP Photo

After three weeks’ respite, the packed Republican presidential debate season is about to return to full tilt. The GOP field will convene in a Detroit suburb on Wednesday for a debate hosted by CNBC. Using a traditional setup, the debate is supposed to focus on economic issues, including taxation, jobs, and the deficit, but fireworks are likely on a few other topics as well. Here’s what to watch for Wednesday night.

1. Will the Herman Cain Allegations Take Center Stage?

Last time around, Herman Cain was a target because his fortunes were rising, along with the popularity of his 9-9-9 plan. Much has happened since, and although his polls numbers have flat-lined, not tanked, repeated allegations of sexual harassment or worse seem to be on their way to derailing the Cain train. How will his rivals handle it? They could attack him directly; even the usually detached Romney edged that way Tuesday, saying the allegations against Cain were serious. But that might be unnecessary and counterproductive. Focusing on Cain’s circus rather than, say, high unemployment is bad for the Republican brand, so they may instead let him bleed slowly as they avert their eyes.

2. Will the ‘Not-Mitt’ Movement Dent Romney’s Armor?

Although it’s long been clear that Mitt Romney was the man to beat in the Republican field, the last two weeks have seen the anybody-but-Mitt movement crystallizing like never before. Bookended by scathing attacks by George Will and Erick Erickson—the voices of the Old Republican Establishment and the Upstart Activist Right, respectively—and peaking with the creation of the website Not Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor’s opponents have come together, Transformers-style. But behind whom? With most of the rest of the field fading or too damaged to take up the standard, Jon Huntsman Jr., whose once-promising candidacy hasn’t even gotten as far as spinning its wheels, is making a late play, producing his own anti-Romney ad. Can Huntsman or some other challenger dent Romney’s armor? Or will the unflappable frontrunner parry all blows with the effortless, bland approach he’s used so far?

3. Will Newt Gingrich Finally Join the First Tier?

With Cain potentially on the outs, could Newt Gingrich finally be having his moment? The former House speaker could appeal to the same voters as Cain (they agree on plenty, as demonstrated by their lovefest on Saturday), he’s experienced, and his campaign seems to have come back from several prematurely declared deaths. Indeed, he’s rising in some polls. But Gingrich’s previous debate performances have been polarizing. While some of the more cerebral Republican pundits gushed over his oratorical and rhetorical talents, he has a tendency to come across as petulantly contrarian and needlessly pedantic. If he can temper those tendencies, the debate could propel him to the first tier of the race.

4. Will Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann Show Up?

Long, long ago—if you can remember that far back—both Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry were first-tier candidates. Their chances at returning to the top tier are slipping away quickly, though Perry’s ample war chest is a crutch. It will be interesting to see how they try to claw back—if at all. Will Perry come across as giddy and drunk, as he did in New Hampshire last month? Will Bachmann figuratively show up? She has been a nonfactor for several debates, but could try to expand on outreach to moms or maybe go big on religion.

5. Will Serious Economic Plans Finally Make an Appearance?

Although the recession is the GOP’s best bludgeon against President Obama, there hasn’t been much serious talk about economic ideas so far. A Bloomberg-hosted debate on the topic produced few memorable moments, and not many voters can describe any of the candidates’ plans save Cain’s 9-9-9. That proposal took a beating from Mitt Romney at the Bloomberg debate. Can Cain defend it better now? Will Romney keep repeating the mantra that he’s got a 59-point plan, never mind that no one can list a single point? Or will Huntsman finally succeed in translating elite conservative praise for his economic program into wider public awareness? With so many candidates onstage and so little time for each of them to talk, though, don’t expect probing analysis from anyone.