When Republican candidates take the debate stage tomorrow night after their longest hiatus since August — and, my, how fast three weeks can go by — it may come as a surprise to see anyone other than Herman Cain standing there. Stories about sexual-harassment allegations against Cain have been taking up most of the oxygen in the campaign since the first report appeared Oct. 30, and the other candidates have taken advantage of their competitor’s troubles to stay mostly out of the spotlight.
Let’s hope they’ve used the time to prepare for the debate, because the topic is paramount for the election: “jobs, taxes, the deficit and the health of our national economy,” according to CNBC, which will become the fifth network in two months to broadcast a GOP debate. (Erin McPike reports that high ratings have driven the frequency of debates, which I suppose is a good sign of an engaged electorate.)
While Cain has drawn the public’s attention, other contenders have been picking their shots. Mitt Romney gave a speech about spending and entitlement reform that was a bit bolder than his earlier efforts on fiscal policy. Rick Perry has been trying to hone his message on jobs, taxes and the economy. Newt Gingrich joined Cain for an amiable discussion of entitlements and government spending before a friendly audience. Michele Bachmann tried to elbow her way back into the thick of things by declaring some Republicans are nothing but “frugal socialists.”
One thing that’s been clear about this race is that the candidates have competing ideas about how to bring the budget deficit under control. There is much daylight between just about any pairing of them when it comes to Medicare and Social Security. Their tax-reform plans vary widely. Republican voters will want to choose the one whose plan offers promise both in terms of policy and politics, in the eventual match-up with President Obama.
Other questions — yes, I’m referring back to Cain — will still get more than their fair share of attention. But if the other candidates haven’t used this relatively quiet period to sharpen up for a debate on the most important topic in next year’s election, it will be very disappointing.
– By Kyle Wingfield