Tuesday debate could be make-or-break for Gov. Perry's presidential hopes

Much has changed in the Republican presidential race since the last debate, which was less than three weeks ago.
 
In that short amount of time, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has plummeted in the polls, slipping to third place in many, while some consider businessman Herman Cain a top-tier candidate. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is back on top as Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) slides farther down.
 

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Tuesday’s debate in New Hampshire, sponsored by Bloomberg News and The Washington Post, will have a different feel than the last event. It will focus purely on the economy, which most voters label their top issue for the 2012 election. It begins at 8 p.m. and will last two hours.
 
Here are some things to look for:
 
Can Rick Perry recover?
 
Tuesday could be a make-or-break moment in Perry’s presidential campaign.
 
His collapse in the polls has coincided with his poor debate performances, and if he can’t do better than he has in previous events, the hefty $17 million he raised last quarter won’t be able to save the Texas governor’s campaign.
 
Perry needs to show he has a strong grasp of the issues and can go toe-to-toe with his rivals, or risk being relegated to the second tier.
 
The debate’s format should help him. It will be a seated roundtable discussion and the focus is on economics, which is Perry’s forte. Also, now that he is no longer the front-runner, he might face fewer attacks from the other candidates.
 
He could face questions about the racist name on a ranch his family leased, and additional questions on immigration, but if he is going to fix the perception that he is a weak debater without a strong grasp on policy specifics, this is the moment he has to do so.
 
How will Herman Cain fare?
 
With Perry no longer the king of the hill and Cain rising fast, it will be interesting to see how aggressively the other candidates go after him in this debate — and how many questions the former Godfather’s CEO gets from the moderators.
 
Cain joked at the Values Voter Summit on Friday that as a front-runner “you get this bull's-eye on your back.”
 
Many of the other candidates have calculated that the race will be between Romney and whoever emerges as his more conservative opponent, and have sought to be that chief rival. That could mean Cain will face much more scrutiny from the other candidates because of his fast rise in the polls.
 
Also, Cain has not been shy about bringing up his 9-9-9 plan in previous debates. And, in this event, he’ll have to explain and defend that plan to questioners experienced in economic issues. Liberals, conservatives and tax analysts have all expressed doubts about the proposal, which would impose a 9 percent tax on corporations, personal income and sales tax. While it’s a catchy and easy-to-remember idea, Tuesday will show whether Cain can explain the details just as easily as he says the name.
 
Will Mitt Romney face any concerted attacks?
 
The front-runner has been able to avoid any serious attacks against him during the debate season, as the other candidates have ignored him to go after each other.
 
They’ve also failed to land any blows they’ve made, like Perry’s stumbling over a prepared statement attacking Romney for flip-flopping, and former candidate Tim Pawlenty’s refusal to repeat his charge that Romney’s healthcare position was “ObamneyCare.”
 
The best thing for Romney is to allow the other candidates to keep beating on each other and try to stay above the fray, something he has proved adept at so far.
 
But that could change Tuesday. The day before the debate, Perry released a Web video attacking Romney on healthcare. And, on Friday, a Perry surrogate attacked the former Massachusetts governor’s Mormon faith at a conference of conservative voters.
 
Although the debate will focus on economic issues, the tea leaves indicate Romney’s rivals are preparing to hit him hard.
 
The others
 
Also appearing onstage are Bachmann, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
 
And these second-tier candidates have a lot to prove.
 
Huntsman has staked his candidacy on New Hampshire, but the latest poll of the state had him at just 4 percent. He has had uneven debate performances and needs to turn in a strong one in a state that's crucial for his campaign.
 
Paul has ably defended his libertarian beliefs in debates, and New Hampshire Republicans are more open to his views than those in more populist, religious states. A debate on the economy could benefit him.
 
Santorum has done well in previous debates, and while an economics debate doesn't play to his profile, it could give him a chance to discuss his successful push to overhaul the welfare system while in Congress and show he is a well-rounded candidate.
 
Gingrich has also gained some traction from sharp debate performances, and the wonky format could let him show why some call him the "ideas man" of the Republican Party.
 
Bachmann has slipped in the polls as she has flubbed some debate performances. If she can show she can compete with the other candidates on complex economic matters, it could help her flagging candidacy.