Newt and Cain Debate at 8, and there are both many ways this could have happened and many ways this debate could go.  Below, I outline a number of possibilities.  Not that many people will watch this, but many opinion leaders will, and soundbites will certainly make the news, be passed around the web, and might even wind up in commercials.

1. Straight-Up: Newt issued an challenge to Obama and Cain accepted instead.  Newt thinks he has the best store of knowledge in the field, and thus believes he would do well in such a debate.  Cain is brave and confident, and could use an opportunity to dispel the belief that he’s not a deep or knowledgable thinker on policy (Or, if his critics are right about him, maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time). Also, by agreeing to make the debate about entitlement reform, general-election third-rail policies that are popular with the Republican base, both have a chance to distinguish themselves on issues that more cautious competitors such as Romney would rather not focus on in the primary.

This can go several ways:

a. For Newt: If he does not meet expectations, he damages his positioning to be auditioned as the next not-Romney.  If he meets or exceeds expectations, the additional exposure this might earn him in the right circles could position him well to replace Cain if he falls.

b. For Cain: Expectations are not that high, but if he falls short, he could be in real trouble.  If he really is not up to the task of presidential frontrunner, having to debate for so long could really show it.  If he overperforms, he could prove his policy chops, and even a marginal performance might give those of his supporters who want him to be good enough the evidence they need to think what they want.

c. Interactions: If Cain somehow “wins,” he benefits greatly.  If Newt “wins,” he benefits, but not enough to really surge without Cain losing support.

2. The Dynamic Duo:  I think this is a pretty likely scenario.  Newt and Cain have been very friendly lately, with Cain even talking up Newt as a good VP choice, so perhaps they intend that both improve their standing.  If Newt refrains from going for the kill, he can get badly-needed attention and Cain can show he knows what he’s doing.  This is more likely if Newt is ready to settle for being Cain’s VP, since it is hard for Newt to benefit much in the existing not-Romney market without it being at least somewhat at Cain’s expense.

3. The Admiral Akbar (It’s a trap!): The least likely option, considering how chummy Gingrich and Cain have been and the Gingrich camp’s pre-debate statement that Gingrich will show his differences with Cain “in a friendly way,” is that Gingrich plans to tear Cain to pieces and become the new not-Romney by showing his superior knowledge and convincing voters that Cain is just not ready for the job. Newt is extremely knowledgable.  If Newt brought his A game and tried to do this, it is not clear that Cain could stop him.  A less unlikely is that Newt does demolish Cain, but in a “friendly way.”

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