Herman Cain has his first real opportunity to shift his campaign's narrative back to his popular 9-9-9 economic plan at Wednesday night's presidential debate.
The former Godfather's Pizza CEO has seen his campaign engulfed by allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior in the 1990s — a topic that has dominated the news cycle for almost two weeks and followed Cain to every public appearance.
"All eyes will be on Herman Cain in a way they have not been up to this point, and that's the result of the confluence of this scandal and his standing in the polls," said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University and author of Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV. "The tune-in tonight among regular voters and the political press will be focused on him, which gives him both an opportunity to do something impressive and the pressure to do something to counteract this story."
Viewers and voters will likely be waiting to see if Cain is asked to address the brewing scandal. The debate, broadcast on financial network CNBC, is supposed to stick to candidates' economic plans. But it seems like a difficult task for the debate's moderators — or other candidates — to avoid the story that has dominated the news cycle for the past week.
Rival Jon Hunstman, speaking on the allegations earlier this week, said the story "takes all of the oxygen out of the room," while both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have urged Cain to speak candidly about the allegations.
How the topic is broached — and the extent to which Cain is expected to speak on the subject — could make all the difference for the candidate.
"If the journalists ask, it's much easier for him to deflect that answer and change the subject," Schroeder said. "…But if it comes from his opponents, even just one of them on the stage, then that's a different animal."
CNBC officials said that there have been no restrictions placed on them about what they can ask the candidates, so questions about the harassment claims are a possibility.
So far, Republicans have been reluctant to criticize Cain, who has flatly denied the allegations of sexual misconduct. But the scandal might prove an enticing target for those trailing in the polls, especially with early primaries quickly approaching.
"Some of these candidates don't have that much to lose and need to do something fairly dramatic to bring the attention back to themselves — or to themselves — because there's not much time," Schroeder said. "I think it would be very tempting if you were a lower-tier candidate to possibly throw a bomb."
Schroeder believes the opportunity might be especially enticing to Rick Perry, who has seen his poll numbers slide dramatically as Cain has risen to prominence. Cain's campaign blamed a Perry surrogate for leaking the story of the allegations last week. Perry's campaign denied the allegation and Cain's campaign said it accepted that denial.
"His poll numbers continue to be disastrous. Debating is a right of passage that he has to prove himself successful at, since he hasn't been able to do that," Schroeder said. "If it's ever going to happen, it sort of has to happen tonight."
But inherent to that strategy is risk of blowback from conservative voters, some of whom agree with Cain's characterization of the charges as politically motivated and untrue. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School who studies presidential communication, says avoiding the scandal is the best strategy for Cain's opponents.
"Candidates are best leaving this alone," Jamieson said. "If asked, the best thing to do is to sidestep and say, 'I don't think it's my role to comment.' "
Jamieson said that the closest historical parallels might be when California Gov. Jerry Brown raised the Whitewater scandal in a 1992 primary debate against Bill Clinton, or when Al Gore challenged Michael Dukakis on Willie Horton's release in the 1988 Democratic contest. But, Jamieson said, a candidate has never had to directly respond to a current sex scandal during a presidential debate.
"Scandals have been raised in the context of debates, but a candidate hasn't been asked to directly respond to this," Jamieson said.
Nor have debates proven a particularly good place to put a scandal to rest. The Horton and Whitewater stories dogged both Democrats long after the debates — unlike, for instance, the Gennifer Flowers allegations, which then-candidate Bill Clinton was able to somewhat sidestep after appearing for an extended interview on "60 Minutes" alongside his wife, Hillary Clinton.
"That was a controlled situation — not a press conference," Schroeder said. "Obviously a debate is a different venue, and a live, unscripted event is not a place to put a scandal behind you."
Outside of the difficulties posed by the scandal, Cain will also have to account for heightened expectations as polls have continued to indicate that he is a leader in the Republican field. Even effectively neutralizing the harassment scandal might not be enough to win the evening.
"He's used the debates in the past successfully because he was an unknown candidate," Jamieson said. "Now you're going to expect more from him, and expect a greater challenge now that, by some accounts, he's the Republican front-runner."
Furthermore, the debate is an important opportunity for Republicans as a party to stake out their message on the economy — the issue many Americans say will determine their vote in 2012. If Cain — or whoever the eventual Republican nominee is — makes economic statements that will be difficult to defend in a general election, or allow the evening to be hijacked by the scandal, that could be devastating in a less obvious way.
"A debate that focuses on economics at this time sends a signal to the American people about where the Republicans stand as representatives of a party," Jamieson said. "There are times where debates reveal things about individuals, and cases where it reveals where the party stands on policy positions. This is a revealing moment of the economic position of that particular party, and those kind of questions are very important to viewers and very important to the process."