The GOP Debate in Rochester, Michigan: Preview and What to Expect

ROCHESTER, Mich. – At 8 p.m. eastern, eight Republican candidates who aren’t Gary Johnson or Buddy Roemer will debate “your money” and “your vote” under kleig lights directed by CNBC. We have a short while before the conventional wisdom is upended again. What should we be watching for? I’ve tried to identify each candidate’s challenge.

Mitt Romney’s General Election Geiger Counter – He’s just spent two weeks inside an invisible cloak, as the MSM chased around a rival who never, ever had a chance of becoming president. He’s in a primary state that no one stands a chance of taking from him – one that he won four years ago by contrasting John McCain’s straight talk about the doomed future with his happy talk about how he’d drag jobs to the state with a tractor beam. Romney’s task is to avoid saying anything new to irritate conservatives (On my first day I’ll give all 50 states ObamaCare waivers! etc.) while calibrating his pitch to the general election audience. He did a good job last week telling conservatives, in so many words, that his economic plan would consist of high-fiving Paul Ryan. Can he keep doing that without creating a problem for the general? There are plenty of Republicans, embarrassed and drained by the race right now, who are ready to be impressed.

Newt Gingrich’s Sphere of Pretentious Tranquility – He’s moved all the way from low teens in March to mid-single-digits in July to low teens in November. He’s got Wall Street Journal writers praising, as new, the stuff he’s been saying for three years. It’s good to be completely ignored by your rivals for a few months. Gingrich’s job will be to keep that up, and hope that no one notices that his American Solutions for the economy, lacking the specificity of Romney’s or Perry’s, are just things that poll gangbusters. The danger is that he’s forgotten the lessons of the Las Vegas debate, where Mitt Romney actually engaged him on his pesky record, and Gingrich sputtered his way to admitting that he once backed a health care mandate. He is safe as long as he doesn’t attack.

Herman Cain’s Veil of Ignorance – At the National Press Club last week, Cain got a not-too-tricky question about his 9-9-9 tax plan. He asked his economic adviser Rich Lowrie to take the podium and answer it, as the moderator lifted his eyebrows at 45 degree angles. At the Lincoln-Douglas debate, five days later, Cain got a simple question about Medicare reform and punted it to Newt Gingrich. Herman Cain is not a details guy. He’s in his first debate since Politico started breaking news about his 1990s sexual harassment settlements. His challenge is to avoid sounding lost at sea on macroeconomics and submerge the “lady” questions with some applause lines.

Rick Perry’s Revised Job Application – He’s not as bad at debates as he used to be. Is it because he’s started downing Algernon’s test medication? If I was Mark Block, I would say I’ve confirmed that he has – but no, more likely he did better in the last debate because the focus is off him. Perry is free once again to define himself, and expectations are so damn low that he can impress if he doesn’t just promise more economic plans to come in three days or five days.

Ron Paul’s Relevance Off/On Switch – There was a time when Ron Paul saw Rick Perry, sized him up, and decided to go after him on conservative bona fides. In the room, it didn’t seem like Paul got the better of it. In post-debate wraps, the three minute chunks that most voters saw, it worked: Paul made it into the discussion and then sort of vanished. The lesson was stupid but clear: Paul gets attention when he criticizes frontrunners for not being hard-money enough, for not being Austrian enough. In a debate like this, where he probably won’t be asked about foreign policy, he could choose to get aggressive again.

The Huntsman/Bachmann/Santorum Pit of Snakes, Scorpians, and Starving Lycanthropes – Between them, they command the support of around 10-12 percent of Iowa caucus-goers, around 6-7 percent of New Hampshire primary voters, around 5 percent of South Carolina primary voters. They are where Chris Dodd once was, the night that he dragged Hillary Clinton underwater into a discussion of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Maybe they’re even more dangerous than Dodd, because there’s nothing any possible Republican president could or would offer them in 2013. (Maybe Santorum could be ambassador to Uganda. Maybe.)

What else am I watching? I’m just hoping that there are more questions about Europe than about Herman Cain’s sexual harassment settlements.