Cain has most to gain, lose at Las Vegas debate, say GOP strategists

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS, Nevada — With his status as a GOP presidential front-runner so newly acquired, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain has both the most to gain and the most to lose on Tuesday night during CNN’s Western Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, say GOP strategists.

In the past two weeks, Cain has surged in the polls. He now is just narrowly edged out by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the outright national poll leader, as measured by RealCearPolitics’ polling average. A Rasmussen Reports poll released Monday even showed Cain leading President Obama by two percentage points in a hypothetical match-up.

The high poll numbers, say GOP analysts contacted by The Daily Caller, is why Cain goes into Tuesday night’s debate with so much to lose.

“It’s his turn wearing the target,” said Dan Hazelwood, a Republican advertising consultant. “People are sizing him up and they expect more depth along with his conviction.”

“As a new member of the ‘top tier’ he will be taking a bunch of arrows from the other candidates who are angling for the ‘anybody but Romney’ vote,” said David Bossie, president of Citizens United.

But at the same time, Bossie added, if Cain handles himself well, he could solidify his precipitous rise as something more than transitory.

“If Cain proves that he can weather the attacks then he will be on a good path for the long run,” he said. (RELATED: Romney, Cain lead in Nevada heading into debate)

John Dunagan, senior vice president of DDC Advocacy, agreed that the spotlight will clearly be on Cain.

“The national media spotlight is now squarely trained on him and the moderators and viewing audience will be looking for the gravitas necessary for a President,” he said.  “GOP voters who are clearly starting to warm up to him as well as those large swaths of undecideds will be watching closely and waiting for him to demonstrate more nuanced policy depth on both the economy and foreign affairs.”

But, Dunagan went on, “if he doesn’t accomplish that, it could be a bad night for Mr. Cain.”

“For some the bloom is off the rose as more and more people are scrutinizing his policy positions including his 9-9-9 plan,” long-time Republican consultant Diana Banister told TheDC, also noting that Cain showed some weakness on foreign policy during his Sunday interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “How Herman handles it will be important, but in his poised style he is rarely moved off his game.”

Other than Cain, Banister says that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum could gain if they continue to deliver solid debate performances.

“Because of their performances in these debates,” she said, Gingrich and Santorum “seem to be gradually and methodically rising in the polls and gaining momentum.”

“It is critical that Michele Bachmann define herself again,” Banister added. “She should do to Mitt Romney what she did to Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry, go toe-to-toe on an issue that will define his positions with conservatives.”

Dunagan said that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a lot to lose in the debate, given his poor performances in debates to date.

“He’s treading on dangerous ground right now,” Dunagan explained. “With another poor performance, the national media and GOP donors could quickly relegate him to ‘also ran’ status. He needs to demonstrate that he’s ready for prime time — something he has thus far been unable to do.”

As for Romney, Hazelwood said that he can continue to hammer home his status as debater extraordinaire with another smooth performance.

“If history is to judge. Mitt Romney can and will gain as he solidifies his debate champion credentials,” he said.

Seven candidates — Romney, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Bachmann, Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — will participate in the debate at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was invited but decided to boycott the debate in protest of Nevada moving its caucuses to Jan. 14, jeopardizing New Hampshire’s traditional status in the primary hierarchy.

The debate will be aired at 8:00 p.m. ET on CNN.