Posted by on October 18, 2011 in Blog

For the fifth time in the last six weeks and the eighth time this year, the Republican candidates will gather tonight for a debate, this time in Las Vegas, Nevada. While the last debate in New Hampshire was focused on the economy, tonight’s CNN-hosted debate will return to a format focused on any and all issues. Here are some key stories to watch for in tonight’s debate:

  • Herman Cain’s rapid rise in the polls appears to be more than a fluke, which will make him a marked man during tonight’s debate. Cain is likely to experience a greater volume and intensity of attacks now that he is ostensibly a frontrunner for the nomination. All attacks Cain suffered in the New Hampshire debate were from third tier candidates, with Romney and Perry largely choosing to ignore him. Now that Cain has shown that he might be serious contender after all, he will be subject to criticism from the top tier candidates as well.
  • Recent anti-Mormon comments by Texas evangelical and Perry supporter Richard Jeffress has brought the heretofore absent subject of religion to prominence in the nomination race. This recent uptick in discussion of religion, as well as Nevada’s sizeable Mormon population, suggest that the topic stands a good chance of being discussed by the candidates in tonight’s debate.
  • Looming over tonight’s debate is the primary-date war being staged between Nevada Republican party chairwoman Amy Tarkanian and New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner. Gardner wants Nevada to move its Jan. 14 caucuses back to Jan. 17—thus allowing New Hampshire to vote on Jan. 10—but so far Tarkanian isn’t budging. New Hampshire is putting pressure on candidates to take sides in the dispute. Governor Huntsman is boycotting tonight’s debate and Cain, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum have all pledged to boycott the Nevada caucuses if the state doesn’t change its date.

This puts Mitt Romney in a difficult position. Romney doesn’t want to say anything negative about Nevada since he won the caucuses easily in 2008 and almost certainly will do so again in 2012. But, he also doesn’t want to alienate New Hampshire voters, whom he may very well need to secure the nomination. He won’t be able to stay neutral much longer, as the influential New Hampshire Union-Leader editorial board threatened on Monday: “Romney could put New Hampshire voters’ minds at ease about his commitment to the primary and the value of selecting candidates the old-fashioned way. He could join the Nevada boycott. Or not. Either way, New Hampshire is watching.” Thus, while the Republican debates have been frequent as of late, there remains a high potential for the momentum or direction of the race to be significantly altered in tonight’s debate in Nevada.

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