CNN Tea Party/Republican Debate

GOP presidential candidates on stage at the CNN Tea Party/Republican debate on Monday, September 12th in Tampa, Florida. (David S. Holloway/CNN / September 12, 2011)

In presidential elections, as the popular line goes, Democrats fall in love with a candidate and Republicans fall in line. This presidential cycle could be a different story, however. Left with a bad taste in their mouths after 2008, Republican voters are looking for a new breed of candidate. Right now, it's Herman Cain.

In the past month, the Georgian businessman, with his eternal optimism and endearing candor, has transformed himself from a long shot into a front-runner. But Tuesday night's CNN and Western Republican Leadership Conference debate in Nevada will be his toughest test yet. The unforgiving eye of the national media is focused on him like never before. Will Cain's rise, like Michele Bachmann's and Rick Perry's before, be short-lived or can he sustain his momentum?

The answer depends on the epicenter of Cain's campaign platform, his 9-9-9 plan. Last week Cain's plan received its biggest endorsements yet. Arthur Laffer, the father of supply-side economics, said he met with Cain about his plan and described it as "wonderful" and "an efficient plan to collect revenues." Laffer added, "What you want is a very efficient tax code people don't try to cheat on. His plan does that dramatically."

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, also said last week that he "loves" Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan and sees the proposal as "specific and credible." In an interview with the Daily Caller, Ryan said, "We need more bold ideas like this because it is specific and credible. I'm more of a flat-tax kind of a guy." Cain would be smart to publicize and capitalize on this high praise Tuesday night.

Critics have been quick to slam Cain's plan, saying it unfairly punishes the poor with higher taxes while adding a consumption-killing sales tax. Cain has responded strongly, insisting that the elimination of payroll taxes and other invisible taxes will offset the sales tax. In time his plan will be fully vetted, but Cain must also not lose sight of the forest for the trees. He should focus like a laser on how the 9-9-9 plan would create jobs, turn around the economy and do more than just reform the tax code.

Should Cain stumble, the race becomes Romney's to lose. He has remained the constant in the ever-shifting Republican field. In the recent Bloomberg debate, the Republican candidates turned their fire on Romney in the candidate-versus-candidate questioning. Romney cordially and directly answered their questions, as he has in all the debates, and demonstrated his mastery of the economic issues. He is a very estimable man.

Romney is still considered the GOP front-runner, yet he hasn't caught fire with the GOP base. As one commentator said, Republican voters don't want to fall in "like" with Romney. Romney can win the nomination by being the last man standing, but he will need more than that to win the presidency. Perhaps the endorsement of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie can provide the much-needed spark Romney has been looking for.

Even with Romney and Cain in the lead, it's still too early to call this a two-person race. Two months ago Texas Gov. Rick Perry was standing where Cain is today. But after a series of poor debate performances, Perry's meteoric rise quickly fell back to Earth. Aiming to get his campaign back on track, Perry released the first part of his jobs plan last week, focusing on energy and job creation in the United States. Perry's plan is a strong sell in energy-rich states like Texas and Pennsylvania, but he must demonstrate he can reach the early primary voters in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.

There is still time for a Perry comeback. He's a formidable and successful governor who is raking in millions of dollars. I was with him on the campaign trail early on and there might not be a better retail politician in the field. Don't count him out.

For the remaining candidates, the race is on for Iowa. Newt Gingrich has become the elder statesman of the Republican field. His mastery of the issues along with his repeated calls to unify Republican opposition to President Obama have resonated with debate watchers. The television debates have helped Newt perhaps more than any other candidate, and with the release of his 21st Century Contract with America, he is recovering from his rocky start to the campaign.

Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum remain popular among tea partiers and evangelical Christians, as evidenced by their recent Values Voters appearances. Bachmann was able to knock Tim Pawlenty out of the race early on, but Perry and Cain have stolen her thunder. She needs to engage them smartly and wisely Tuesday night to get back into the race.

Santorum, on the other hand, is coming off one of his best debate performances. His final answer in the Bloomberg-Washington Post debate, emphasizing the role family values play in the economy, scored him big points among conservative voters, although he's still far behind in the polls. Rep. Ron Paul, also a presence in Iowa, continues to have strong straw poll showings, but he has yet to break into the top tier.

The campaign for 2012 is proving to be an unusual one. Rather than looking to the next in line, Republican voters are looking to what moves their heart. Who will win it in the end is still to be decided.

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

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