Pre-Gaming the Las Vegas debate:
Let me get this out of the way early. Will this debate have any national impact? No, because what happens in Vegas …
That's off my chest. For the first time in this string of debates there does not appear to be a candidate for whom it is live-or-die. Jon Huntsman is boycotting the debate claiming fealty to RNC rule makers whom Nevada has decided to ignore by moving its caucuses up to January 14, 2012 (a Saturday).
Many of the other candidates have announced they are not competing in the Nevada caucuses for the same reason, hoping the rest of us won't notice that as of now, Mitt Romney is a lock to win there.
National polls show this is still a two-man race, but the second man is now named Herman Cain. Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul make up the second tier. The best that can be said for Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and the aforementioned Jon Huntsman is: They are still in the race.
The political genius class is trying to determine if Cain's ascension to the top of the stack is for real or is just the latest in the string of candidates whose campaigns, like fireworks, reach a pre-ordained height, explode in a shower of pretty colors, then disappear into the night air.
Tonight's debate may help clarify that as we watch for signs of Herman Cain acting - and speaking - like a front-runner instead of an also-ran. Cain will probably be quizzed about reports of his close connections to the Koch brothers which won't help win support from Independents, and his having drawn fire from Democratic/Liberal Black leaders. Cain will also need to show growth in his understanding of, and having thought about, both foreign and domestic policy beyond 9-9-9 (such as the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators) befitting his new stature as a serious candidate.
Mitt Romney has survived the ascent stages of Bachmann and Perry and appears to be much more comfortable in the debate setting than he was in the early rounds. If I were asking, I would press Romney on how he intends to break through his ceiling of support among Republicans which has reached 30 percent but has typically been in the mid-20s for months.
Rick Perry raised a ton of money out of Texas in the last quarter and has plenty of cash-on-hand to re-start his campaign. There has been no "Perry must do well tonight" chatter among the Twitteristas and it will be interesting to see if he performs better without the pressure of being the lead dog in the sled team.
Look for CNN's Anderson Cooper to press Perry on the latest round of anti-Romney/anti-Mormon rhetoric from an evangelical leader who is backing him. Perry refused, on ABC's Good Morning America, to disavow David Lane's remark saying, "The issue is: Are we going to tell people what they can say?"
I was quoted by Howard Kurtz in his DailyBeast.com column as saying "If there were a debate every night Newt Gingrich would be the nominee." But, there isn't, so he won't.
Newt's debate performances have kept his campaign's lifeboat from crashing onto the rocks, but now that he is rising in the polls he will have to avoid saying things like former Senator Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank should be put in jail (which he said in the most recent debate) because it will gain much more attention and remind voters of the Angry Newt they haven't liked very much over the past 25 years.
Ron Paul is hanging in with the support of about eight percent of GOP voters (occasionally cracking low double-digits). There probably isn't anything he can say, or any new way he can say it, that will change that. In Libertarian (if not Libertine) Las Vegas, listen for whoops and cheers from the audience whenever Paul speaks.
Michele Bachmann is buried in the mid-single digits. Perry's polling collapse has benefitted Cain, not Bachmann. At some point she's going to have to look at her re-election for the U.S. House and decide she needs to (a) campaign in a redrawn district, and (b) raise money for that campaign, so (c) withdraw from the Presidential race.
With only seven candidates on stage instead of eight, Bachmann may try to elbow her way into the discussion tonight especially if Perry has his typical second-half fade.
Rick Santorum is at two percent in the latest polls with no signs of being able to change that. If the debate organizers raise the bar for admission to five percent or more in nationally recognized polls, Santorum will join Huntsman, and former NM Governor Gary Johnson as honored guests in the front row of the audience.
I'll send the Post-Game analysis immediately following the debate which is on CNN beginning at 8:00 Eastern.