Rule of Three: Cain, Romney, Perry Engage in Three-Dimensional Chess

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA — The CNN/Western Republican debate previewed the vulnerabilities and opportunities that Herman Cain, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry will face in the next month of their respective campaigns.

Cain, under the intense scrutiny befitting his new front-runner status, did not get knocked out during the debate, even as his Republican rivals raised red flags about his “9-9-9” plan that would call for a nine percent national sales tax in addition to the state sales tax that many consumers already have to pay.

Further, Cain opened himself up to more attacks going forward when he referred to enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay as “hostages.”

But, because Cain took incoming fire and emerged relatively in tact, as he was before the debate, Cain will be a serious contender in the months ahead.

Going forward, Cain’s challenge will be to turn his strong poll numbers (he’s leading in many national and state polls) into actual votes.

Addressing Cain’s perceived weakness on foreign policy, Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon said that Cain is relying on a circle of foreign policy advisers to help him solidify his grasp of international issues.

Mitt Romney’s and Rick Perry’s fortunes seem directly tied to Cain’s candidacy. If Cain catches fire even more and builds a solid organization that can translate the unsurpassed enthusiasm for his candidacy into money and votes, he may directly threaten Romney for the nomination. If Cain stays in neutral from here to the nomination, he may split off enough conservative votes from Perry to give Romney the nomination. If Cain implodes, it will most likely help Perry re-emerge as the chief anti-Romney alternative for conservatives.

If the race does indeed become a contest between Perry and Romney, both candidates will face vulnerabilities.

For Romney, questions will remain about RomneyCare, his authenticity, and whether a Mormon candidate, particularly one with questions about his authenticity, can energize Evangelicals to vote for him in the primary and, perhaps more importantly, in a potential general election match-up against President Barack Obama.

When Perry accused Romney during the debate of knowingly hiring illegal immigrants to work on his home, Romney, perhaps in a moment of authenticity that revealed the calculating politician  his opponents have tagged him as, said, “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.” 

Kevin Madden, a spokesperson for Romney during the 2008 cycle, said Romney’s business experience and his “faith in the private sector” would gain the trust of conservatives and allow him to put together a coalition similar to that of Ronald Reagan’s in opposition to Obama. Madden mentioned that Romney played a role in helping start Staples, and that gives him a sense of understanding the economics of “Main Street” along with “Wall Street,” the latter of which Romney is more familiarly identified with.

Madden also said that Romney often likes to ask Evangelicals whether they would vote for “a Mormon or this Mormon” and highlights Romney’s family, marriage, and personal values and morals.

If Perry re-emerges as the chief anti-Romney candidate, conservatives may still find it difficult to support him in light of comments he made during a debate in Florida in which he said that those who disagreed with giving in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants did not have “a heart.”

“You talked about magnets,” Romney reminded Perry during the debate. “You put in place a magnet to draw illegals into the state, which was giving $100,000 of tuition credit to illegals that come into this country.”

Perhaps aware of this vulnerability, Perry’s campaign decided they needed to prevent Romney from flanking him to the right on immigration, which Romney has attempted to do in recent weeks.

Perry communications director Ray Sullivan told HUMAN EVENTS that Perry is the candidate who best knows how to deal with immigration because he “had to deal with the federal failure [on immigration] for a decade.”

Sullivan added: “He knows how to get the border secure, we understand the issue better than anyone else.”

With nearly 70 percent of the party against Romney, Perry’s camp knows that, mathematically, Perry would benefit the sooner the GOP contest became a Romney versus Perry match-up.

Sullivan cited Perry’s jobs record and the energy, jobs, and tax plans that Perry will roll out that will give the campaign enough air cover to assist in the robust ground game expected in the early primary states, such as Iowa and South Carolina.

“The process will work itself out, we feel like we are well positioned to go the distance because the governor has got the resources to go the distance,” Sullivan said. “Not many candidates on the stage can say that.”

When asked about how many of the voters who have left Perry in recent months did not go to Romney but instead went to Cain and Gingrich, Sullivan said that it is their job to “get those votes back in our camp” and that Perry was the best candidate to unite voters in the “conservative wing of our conservative party” against Romney.

Of course, another reason for Perry’s precipitous decline has been his less than stellar debate performances. During the debate, Romney suggested that Perry was getting frantic because he had a bad couple of debates that led to a demise in the polls. 

“Whether individual debates matter or not is something we will be able to answer in a year with hindsight,” Sullivan said.

Ironically, for Perry, this debate may go down as having been the one that mattered most in reviving his candidacy and campaign.

(Photo Credit: CNN/David Holloway)