Anti-Romney Voters and Potential Cain Defectors Up for Grabs in Tonight's GOP Debate

With less than two months before the first votes are cast in the 2012 presidential primary contest, the GOP candidates will again debate tonight in a CNBC sponsored event in Michigan aimed to focus on economic issues.

With nearly 70 percent of the primary electorate not sold on Mitt Romney and current front-runner Herman Cain embattled, as he deals with allegations of inappropriate conduct and sexual harassment from at least three women, the anti-Romney vote and potential Cain defectors are up for grabs.

In many ways, there is some overlap between these two groups as the anti-establishment and Tea Party voters who distrust Romney have largely been supportive of Cain in the past month.

If Cain implodes and his supporters flee, though, to whom could his supporters go?

In many initial polls, the second choice candidate of Cain supporters seems to be Newt Gingrich, who is now in second place in Iowa in some polls and third place in almost every national poll.  If Cain voters go to Gingrich, the former speaker may emerge as the chief anti-Romney candidate. His strategy may be to embrace Cain with the hopes that Cain’s voters would view him favorably.

Some of Cain’s evangelical supporters could go to Rick Santorum, who has gained key endorsements from influential social conservatives such as Chuck Laudner in Iowa. Santorum, along with Michele Bachmann, have been highly critical of Cain and will most likely continue to do so in regards to policy though questions remain about whether they will explicitly or implicitly draw attention to Cain’s current problems.

Meanwhile, the candidate who needs Cain’s voters the most is Rick Perry. He may be the most conservative candidate left who can win a general election, but his poor debate performances and inability to articulate his message has left his poll numbers collapsing almost in direct proportion to Cain’s rise. For Perry to emerge as the chief anti-Romney rival and consolidate the anti-Romney vote, he must have the field cleared for him as the race heads to South Carolina.

In the debate, Perry will have to draw clear contrasts between himself and not only Romney but also Cain as well. Perry’s debate skills have been questioned but he needs to adroitly ramp up his performances to enable his campaign to put his war chest to use. If voters think he won’t be able to articulate the conservative message against President Obama, no amount of money will help Perry close the sale.

Another interesting dynamic to look for will be that between Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney. On fiscal issues, Huntsman’s economic plan that calls for three flat rates, no deductions and loopholes, and the lowering of the corporate tax rate to twenty five percent has been called the most conservative and pro-growth plan by the likes of those at the American Enterprise Institute and other conservative economists. His record on fiscal issues in Utah is also arguably the most conservative in the field.

Huntsman’s challenge is to convince voters who are solely interested in defeating Obama in 2012, especially in New Hampshire, that he is the better candidate than Romney to defeat Obama.

But with the media circus surrounding Cain, the lingering question is whether the candidates will be able to debate substantive issues and policy differences among each other or whether the chatter before and after the debate will focus on the theatrics and the drama involving Cain.

In many ways, the more the Cain circus continues, the more it aids Romney, by reducing the number of days in the news cycle that candidates can gang up on him and highlight his weaknesses.