Tonight’s GOP Debate: Cain’s Test, Another Chance for Perry

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain in Phoenix, Arizona October 17, 2011.

Another day, another Republican presidential debate. (And Mike Allen catalogues the announcement of three more since Sunday, so help us.) As the GOP candidates gather in Las Vegas tonight for a CNN debate, I see three key dynamics to watch:

Can Herman Cain Take the Heat? Last week’s debate was Cain’s first after shooting to the top of Republican presidential polls. But he was still something of a novelty and the press hadn’t yet done much digging into his record. Tonight Cain can expect some very tough questions from CNN moderator Anderson Cooper. His rivals have also had more time to develop critiques of Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan that are more sophisticated than Michele Bachmann’s demonology. Cain is excellent when he’s in control of an audience; he has seemed less sure of himself in recent media interviews. One thing to watch for: Might he lose his temper?

Will Romney Coast Again? Mitt Romney has somehow made it through several debates without suffering a proper pile-on by the other candidates. The same might happen again tonight, especially if everyone again fixates on Cain and his 9-9-9 plan. Or perhaps the recent (and overblown) talk of Rommey’s “inevitability” will finally prompt his rivals to bare their fangs. It remains to be seen, however, who can squarely land a punch on Romney’s chiseled chin. Rick Perry has thus far proven unable, though perhaps another week of debate prep will finally get him there. Michele Bachmann no longer seems to move voters. And the man who might eviscerate Romney most effectively–Newt Gingrich, perhaps the best talker of the bunch–has generally preferred to attack debate moderators, liberals and President Obama–not the other candidates. (Watch out, Anderson.)

Can Perry Reassert Himself? The good news for Rick Perry: Expectations are so low, it should be easy to deliver an surprising performance. The bad news: It’s not clear whether he’s capable. Hitting Romney’s record of flip-flops is a fairly elementary task, however, and sooner or later Perry is going to get it right. He had some standout debate moments back in Texas (as well as some awkward ones, to be sure). If Perry can leave Las Vegas pointed in the right direction, he’s got about $17 million of jet fuel to propel himself back into contention. I wouldn’t count him out for a second.