Republican candidates will meet yet again this evening in Las Vegas, capping off a marathon of debates that began in early September. The primary landscape looks very different now than it did back then, when Rick Perry was ascendant and 9/9/9 wasn't a catch phrase. Here's what to look for.
1. How much speaking time will Ron Paul get?
Last weekend Ron Paul's campaign sent out an e-mail touting that he was finishing third in major national polls (behind Romney and Perry, or Romney and Cain), but that he was "dead last" in terms of speaking time allotted at Republican debates. Eighteen minutes and 47 seconds, the e-mail claims, is even less than the candidates Paul has been "beating for months".
Paul should have plenty to talk about tonight, but will he have plenty of time? He rolled out his "Plan to Restore America" this week, a budget that seeks $1 trillion in spending cuts, and he'll likely try to draw as much attention to it as he can. But here's the thing: How many times could Herman Cain say "9/9/9" in 18 minutes and 47 seconds? Paul's got Cain beat when it comes to details, but he lacks the kind of hook that's made Cain so hot recently, the one that doesn't take a lot of time to say and sticks in people's minds. If Paul doesn't get any more time than usual to sell his plans, he may have to work on a new pitch.
2. Will Herman Cain's math pass the test?
Speaking of the Hermanator, when Cain doubled down on 9/9/9 earlier this month he took the big target that was on Rick Perry's back and slapped it on his own. Cain surged in the polls and his campaign got a fresh lease on life, but all that attention makes him the prime target for his opponents tonight.
And they've got plenty of material to work with. There's been a lot of head-scratching in the media about just how simple and sensible Cain's proposal really is. Economists and politicians on the right and left have come out against it (how often can Paul Krugman and John McCain find common ground?) and the resounding response has been that the plan is either ridiculous or needs more detail. Look for Cain to answer questions about the revenue his plan would raise, whether it increases taxes on anybody, and whether he thinks he could actually implement it in the face of so much backlash.
3. Can Rick Perry perform?
Seriously, the guy can't get booed again. Sure, his fundraising numbers for the summer were massive, but you can chalk that up to excitement around his campaign launch and his meteoric rise to the top. The pummeling he's taken in the polls since has got to worry Perry, who has seen his star burn out spectacularly, thanks in no small part to some disappointing debate displays. This is the last such forum he'll face until mid-November. Simply avoiding a "you don't have a heart" moment would have to be considered progress.
4. Will Romney get rattled?
Unlike Rick Perry, Mitt Romney has been sitting comfortably at or near the top of the polls ever since the campaign began, and he doesn't fudge the debates. He's the most well-established candidate, but he also takes some heat for seeming like the establishment guy.
Enter Herman Cain, the most recent challenger to Romney's credibility. Cain's been casting himself as the businessman who hires people; Romney, who made his fortune buying and selling companies, is the businessman who fires people. All of that private sector experience untainted by a long history in politics? Cain's going for the anti-Romney image.
But if Cain falters in tonight's debate, that could leave a vacuum in potential contenders for the top spot. By this point in the campaign, almost everyone else has had their moment in the sun where it looked like they'd be able to take on Mitt. He's stayed the course while Bachmann and Perry have fallen off. Cain's next in line, and it remains to be seen if he can rattle Romney for real.
5. Where's Jon Hunstman?
Actually, you don't have to watch tonight's debate to find out the answer: He won't be appearing in Las Vegas this evening, opting instead to host a town hall in New Hampshire to compete with the event. Huntsman's putting all his eggs in the basket that is the Granite State; given the moderate tilt of New Hampshire conservatives, he's betting that it doesn't make sense to appear in yet another nationally-televised Republican debate where he won't stand out.
That, and travel becomes expensive. Given his disappointing fundraising totals for the summer, this could be a sign that Huntsman is tightening his belt.
It's a Free Country will be hosting a stream of the debate as well as a live chat this evening starting at 7:45 pm EST. Don't miss it.