A New Debate Night Dynamic: Herman Cain vs. Mitt Romney

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I never thought I’d see a headline like this one, but that’s where we stand this afternoon as the Republicans prepare for their latest debate tonight in New Hampshire. At the moment, all the energy and momentum in the primary race is with two candidates, Mitt Romney and Herman Cain. Somehow, the former pizza company executive and motivational speaker is gathering more steam–he’s now running a close second in a new Iowa poll and first in a South Carolina survey. You can debate how much that’s about Cain himself, as opposed to Tea Party voter discontent with Romney and Rick Perry. But the fact is that Cain will be front-and-center tonight (literally).

This raises all sorts of interesting questions. One is how Cain will handle being the target of fastball questions of the sort he rarely fielded before his sudden surge, but which he’s sure to face tonight from the debate moderators and his jealous rivals onstage. When challenged in interviews, Cain tends to stand his ground confidently, even to the point of absurdity, perhaps because even he probably doesn’t expect to be the nominee. Whether his lack of nuance and spin works for or against him tonight, as GOP voters watch to see how serious a candidate he is, remains to be seen.

But Cain won’t just be dodging incoming fire tonight; he has announced his attention to go after Romney, the consensus frontrunner who will be standing next to him. This puts Romney in a dicey position. On the one hand, the former Massachusetts governor will be loath to take Cain too seriously. At the same time, Romney will need to defend himself, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt him to take some air out of Cain’s balloon–which is fueling endless stories about conservative discontent with Romney.

To get some advice for Romney I called the veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who recently left Michele Bachmann’s primary campaign. “I think [Romney] has to get kinda back at him,” Rollins said. “Don’t lose his cool. But obviously he can’t sit there and be a punching bag. What he has to do is take some extreme positions that Herman Cain has taken, and put those out to diminish him a little bit.” Rollins added that Romney should take care not to get caught in a tit-for-tat with Cain that lets his rivals rise above the fray. At the same time, Rollins suggested that Romney should offer some warm praise for the former pizza baron. “Do it with no disrespect. Say, “Herman, you’ve been a great asset to this campaign. You obviously have built a following. You are a champion of the Tea Party.  We’ve both been businessmen who know what needs to be done. I want to sit down and talk, and maybe have you in my cabinet.”

Romney’s problem is slightly mitigated by the fact that he has the snazzy new endorsement of Chris Christie to trumpet tonight. He also can’t afford to worry about Cain to the exclusion of Rick Perry, who after all has raised $17 million and is trashing Romney in a new attack video that’s circulating widely.

Still, facing down the runaway Cain train will require real political skill. And how Romney responds to the challenge could say a lot about his strength as a candidate over the long haul.