MARK HUMPHREY Enlarge
LAS VEGAS — Former pizza magnate Herman Cain has a chance Tuesday night to convince voters he’s not just the latest fad, debating fellow Republican presidential candidates in economically hard-hit Nevada as he enjoys his new standing atop opinion polls.
Mitt Romney, who has turned in consistently strong debate performances, remains the candidate to beat in the GOP campaign to select a nominee to take on President Barack Obama next year.
The backdrop for the debate is the state’s the 13.4 percent unemployment rate, the country’s highest. The formerly fast-growing neighborhoods north of the glittering Las Vegas strip are now wracked by foreclosures.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney and Cain are being joined onstage by five others: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is skipping this debate. He was in New Hampshire instead because he’s boycotting the Nevada caucuses in a dispute over the GOP primary calendar. Nevada has scheduled its contest for Jan. 14, and Republican officials are pressuring Romney and other Republicans to join Huntsman’s boycott if the state refuses to hold the caucuses later in the month.
Romney has so far refused to join the boycott, though the New Hampshire primary, traditionally the nation’s first, is a must-win contest for him. In a conference call with New Hampshire supporters before the debate, he reassured Republicans there that he sees their primary as important.
Romney also used the call to preview a likely line of criticism against Cain, who has been near the top of polls for over a week and has been facing intense scrutiny, particularly over his tax plan.
“Most people in middle income categories will have their taxes go up” under that plan, Romney said in the call, and he said senior citizens would be hurt.
More tough questions for Cain were expected on his issue positions as well as his years spent public speaking and hosting a radio talk show. That background has boosted his popularity, but it also has created a huge record of statements on issues that rivals are certain to mine if they start to consider him a lasting threat.
Romney, too, is expected to face challenges, including over how he plans to help Nevada’s economy if he does become president.
He told the Las Vegas Review Journal’s editorial board in an interview: “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom. Allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up and let it turn around and come back up,”
Obama’s campaign — increasingly focused on Romney as the likely Republican nominee — responded immediately. “Mitt Romney’s message to Nevada homeowners struggling to pay their mortgage bills is simple: You’re on your own, so step aside,” spokesman Ben LaBolt said.