What to Watch for at Tonight’s Republican Debate

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Isaac Brekken / AP

Republican presidential candidates pose before the Republican presidential debate Oct. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas.

For all the carping about how there are too many Republican presidential debates, I’m actually looking forward to No. 11. It’s been more than three weeks since the gloves came off in CNN’s Las Vegas debate and the field has shifted significantly since then. Now there’s really only one thing dominating the GOP’s 2012 race and that’s Herman Cain’s potentially dubious sexual past. Here are five things to look for in CNBC’s debate tonight in Michigan.

Who will go after Cain? So far Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are the only candidates who’ve gone negative on the embattled candidate. Bachmann slyly suggested that “this year we can’t have any surprises with our candidate,” and Santorum called on Cain to “be “forthcoming so that you are vetted.” Mitt Romney, looking to pick up Cain supporters and keep the rest of the field competing with each other, has simply said it’s a distraction — a sentiment Cain agreed with last night. But with blood in the water, will the others–Rick Perry? Newt Gingrich?–circle in for the kill?

Can Cain can perform under pressure? Standing at the center of a media storm of this magnitude is perhaps the hardest trial a candidate can endure, and focusing on other issues at a time like this can be tough. Watch to see if allegations of sexual misconduct by four women knock Cain off his game tonight.

Will Perry finally step up his game? For a while there it wasn’t clear that he would even participate in this debate. But Perry’s had three more weeks to practice. If he can actually beat incredibly low expectations, he might pick back up some of his lost momentum and capitalize on Cain’s roubles. A tip for Perry: going negative on Romney’s immigration record isn’t a good strategy.

Does Romney attack? In the last debate, he let Perry get under his skin, particularly on immigration. Since then, Romney’s gone negative on Perry’s immigration stance. Will he continue that trend tonight? Or will he lay low, yet again?

Is this Newt’s moment? Washington insiders say the former Speaker will be the next candidate to get a serious look from conservative voters. He came off as the adult in the room in the last debate. Can he break out tonight?