ROCHESTER, MICHIGAN - Greetings from Car Country! Believe it or not, it's been more than three weeks since the last Republican presidential debate, which feels like an eternity this cycle. Never fear, debate mavens, there are four such forums scheduled between now and December -- so buckle up. Tonight's exchange on CNBC will garner a great deal of attention because it's the first time Herman Cain will face his rivals in person since multiple allegations of sexual harassment lit what is now a raging media firestorm. Much of the pre-debate chatter is focusing on the Cain imbroglio and his team's butchered political response, but I wonder if that misses a crucial point: The national unemployment rate sits at a painful 9 percent. Here in Michigan, it's north of eleven percent. There will be many, many voters watching tonight who couldn't care less about what Herman Cain did, or did not, do over a decade ago. Of course people want an honest leader, and yes, one's ability to manage campaign crises isn't irrelevant, but 14 million Americans are out of work. If the discussion descends into sleazy he-said/she-said territory, the candidate who manages to make this point forcefully and refocus the conversation will do himself a huge favor.
Another interesting side note: Michigan is packed with voters of all political stripes whose parochial interests strongly favor the federal auto bailouts. This topic will surely come up. Will candidates pander to the local crowd, or make the conservative case against the bailouts? As you ponder some of those issues, here's my rapid fire run-through on tonight's contenders:
Bachmann - She's been trying to make some hay out of Cain's recent troubles, as she flails to regain relevancy in nearby Iowa. If anyone on that stage is going to try to score some big points on this matter, my money is on Bachmann.
Cain - The former Pizza CEO may actually benefit if his opponents go overboard on the sexual harassment stuff. As I wrote above, Michigan voters are starving for jobs and economic growth. A catty pile-on over ugly and largely unproven accusations about personal conduct will strike many voters as an unserious distraction. Cain will, and should, steer the conversation to policy. No cringe-worthy punting on fundamental questions this time.
Gingrich - Newt is the latest ascendant non-Romney candidate. He's mounted a valiant comeback from his campaign's disastrous roll out, surging into third place in several state and national polls. A great deal of this success has come from stellar debate performances. Who wants to bet Newt is champing at the bit to take the media to the woodshed for its Cain/Clinton double-standard? My magic eight ball says the likehihood of that sort of takedown is high, if the opportunity presents itself. Another sign that Gingrich is getting serious? He's throwing himself under the bus for cutting that global warming "couch of trust" ad with Nancy Pelosi. He'll really have to sell that reversal in the Cap-and-Trade-phobic Midwest.
Huntsman - The Huntsman campaign has been turning up the heat on Mitt Romney. With his campaign flat-lining, will Huntsman embrace the role of anti-Romney hatchet man? The two men are widely known to dislike each other, so the shoe just might fit. The former Utah Governor may also go after Romney's entitlements plan for being too milquetoast. Huntsman has said his alternative can be stated in three words: "The. Ryan. Plan."
Paul - Economy-focused debates generally help Ron Paul because the topics coincide with his passions and expertise. Then again, his strident anti-bailout principles may not sit well with many Michiganders. Will be soften his message at all? No chance. His allergy to pandering is part of Paul's appeal. Once the foreign policy debates roll around in the coming weeks, brace for impact.
Perry - The Texas Governor has had oodles of time to prepare for this debate, and its format will offer him the chance to highlight and sell his flat tax proposal. A recipe for success? After weeks of free fall, it seems that Perry's campaign has stabilized a bit, but his numbers haven't even approached recovery mode. Many political observers believe that Perry's infrsatructure and financing make him well positioned to ride a second wind back into the top tier, but that momentum has to start somewhere. Will the comeback begin in Michigan tonight?
Romney - Michigan will offer friendly confines for Mitt Romney, who was born here, and whose father governed the Great Lakes State in the 1960s. Romney defeated McCain in Michigan back in 2008, and hopes to replicate his primary triumph this coming February. The ever-cautious former Massachusetts Governor will try to stay above the fray if the Cain mess comes up -- both in an attempt to escape unsullied by the muck, and in a show of respect for Cain, for whom he's frequently expressed admiration. It's almost inevitable that the defeated collective bargaining reform law in neighboring Ohio will come up during tonight's discussion. Will Romney reiterate his (post-equivocation) unequivocal support for the dispatched legislation, or will be succumb to his powerful instinct towards hedging?
Santorum - I remain somewhat befuddled that Rick Santorum's poll numbers haven't budged in any meaningful way as many Republican voters frantically search for a plausible non-Romney nominee. He's an experienced serious thinker with a strong grasp on policy, yet he's gained virtually zero traction in an unsettled field. That must speak volumes about his inability to connect with people, I guess. Meanwhile, he's been a force in debates; unafraid to call out anyone over bad arguments or bad policy. He's provided a valuable service in this role, landing body blows against a number of top contenders, including an effective (albeit brief) cross-examination on Romneycare.
As I noted above, the opening bell sounds at 8pm Eastern. As usual, we'll have team coverage here on The Tipsheet, so stay tuned and prepare to sound off...