TheDC’s Matt Lewis: Herman Cain stands to gain most from GOP debate

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The first debate for the 2012 GOP primary — sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party — won’t include many of the party’s biggest names, but it might include fireworks.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be the most prominent candidate in attendance. He will be joined by former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

So who stands to gain most in this milieu? This seems to be the perfect recipe for Herman Cain.

A skilled communicator, Cain is clearly the best orator in the bunch. And the fact that he will be competing for attention with just four other candidates means he will gain a tremendous amount of exposure in this nationally-televised debate.

Don’t be surprised if Cain uses this debate as a platform to elevate his candidacy, much in the same way that Mike Huckabee’s early debate performance helped catapult him into the top-tier.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum might also benefit. Once considered a rising star in the GOP, Santorum is now considered a long-shot for the nomination. But he still has a few things going for him. His background as a U.S. senator means he has more foreign policy experience than most of the other candidates on stage. And on a superficial note, he probably looks and sounds more “presidential” than the other participating candidates.

And while some candidates might have a hard time parlaying a successful debate performance into something bigger, Santorum may have the most potential. If he can prove himself during early debates — and that’s a big if — there could a tipping point where national political donors (including a network of prominent conservative Catholics) begin to believe in him again. Santorum would need to catch fire early in order to make this long-shot a reality, so look for him to come out swinging.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty might also gain from this exposure, but also has much to lose.

On one hand, despite the fact that he is considered a top-tier candidate, Pawlenty is not widely known by the general public. This debate will give him an opportunity to get exposure that other top-tier candidates will not.

But while Pawlenty probably couldn’t afford to turn down this opportunity, he is entering extremely dangerous territory. Like a man wearing an expensive suit on the wrong side of town, he has seemingly more to lose than his adversaries.

His opponents will be liberated (and even incentivized) to throw around fiery rhetoric, while Pawlenty’s top-tier status may lead him to weigh his words more carefully. For an already charismatically-challenged candidate, this creates an almost “no-win” scenario.

Also worth noting is that two of the five GOP debate participants (Rep. Paul and Gov. Johnson) are libertarian-leaning Republicans.

On the positive side, this lessens the likelihood that their views on foreign policy, etc., might be viewed as “fringe.” (During the 2008 primary debates, when it came to debating whether or not America should adopt a non-interventionist foreign policy, Ron Paul was often forced to defend his positions against John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, et al.) If libertarians care more about winning the argument than winning the debate, having two representatives may not be a bad idea.

On the other hand, Paul and Johnson will now both be competing against each other for votes and support among what is already a limited segment of the GOP. Having run for president before, Paul’s arguments won’t be new — and Johnson may have a hard time trying to “out-libertarian” him. My guess is their presence will impact the debate, but I don’t expect either to catch fire.

Of course, the big story may also be who isn’t attending. Despite having formed exploratory committees, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (who is winding down financial obligations) have opted not to attend. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer won’t be permitted to participate, due to his failure to average 1 percent in national polls. Other prominent possible candidates sitting this one out include former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.).

Matt K. Lewis