One of the things to watch for in tonight’s GOP debate is how Herman Cain is treated by his fellow candidates. Is he perceived as a threat? Do they take his chances seriously?
Based on history, that kind of performance ought to make Cain a target in the debate, because that’s what happens to top-tier candidates. When Rick Perry entered the race and seemed a real threat, Romney wasted no time attacking him, with Michele Bachmann gleefully joining in. Perry hasn’t been the same since.
Perry, for his part, has returned fire at Bachmann and especially at Romney, both in speeches and in a hard-hitting ad that links RomneyCare to ObamaCare. And earlier in the campaign, when Bachmann identified fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty as a threat to her chances in Iowa, she spent a good portion of one debate dismantling the former governor, and to great effect. Shortly thereafter, he dropped out of the race.
Gingrich, Huntsman and until now Cain, not so much. They’ve been treated as harmless afterthoughts by the top candidates. (Ron Paul is a special case, as both his admirers and detractors would agree).
So if Romney, Perry and Bachmann do perceive Cain as a legitimate threat to win the nomination, they’ll begin to question him and his policies directly. Call it a sign of respect. Maybe they’ll ask him why, in 2008, he strongly backed the TARP bailout and treated opponents with such condescension, attacking them as “free market purists (who) want you to believe that this is the end of capitalism as we know it.” Maybe they’ll press him on why he dismissed an audit of the Federal Reserve, saying those who thought an audit necessary just didn’t know enough about the Fed. (They also ought to challenge him on the fact that his “9-9-9″ plan would significantly raise taxes on the poor and middle class, but this being a Republican debate, that probably won’t happen.)
On the other hand, if they continue to treat Cain with kid gloves, preferring to direct their fire elsewhere, that will say a lot as well.
– Jay Bookman