EDITOR'S NOTE: Joel Harris's analysis was submitted prior to last night's debate (as evidenced by the time stamp), but due to a posting error did not appear until this morning.
If nothing else, the number of Republican debates has done one thing for potential primary voters. It has helped clarify the field. And as the race has worn on, the candidates have been whittled down, one-by-one. While it is true that the state of the race has been very fluid, it appears that the process has done an effective job of determining who NOT to vote for.
The first victim was Tim Pawlenty whose weak responses in the initial debates led to a poor showing in the Ames straw poll and an early exit to the surging Michelle Bachmann. Bachmann was the next to go with the arrival of Perry, the introduction of bad media publicity and the impression that she couldn't make a point without engaging in hyperbole.
Santorum, Huntsman, and Johnson launched campaigns that never took flight. Ron Paul has failed to demonstrate that he could reach outside of his loyal base. While it is still possible for a rebound of any of these candidates (save Pawlenty), it looks highly unlikely. This leaves the race as it stands as a four man affair between Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. Here is the strategy each needs to employ to win the party nomination.
While many of the experts pick Mitt Romney as the front runner, I believe he's in a difficult spot. The base of the party has very clear reservations and any lead he's had thus far has been more by default than due to any particular prowess. Accordingly he needs to play a balancing act of knocking the conservative front runner (whomever he/she may be at the time) down a run while keeping him/her in the race. Thus far this has meant avoiding conflict until players appear to be a serious threat (like Rick Perry). He has managed this well thus far but must continue to keep this balanced. If Herman Cain appears to be taking a lead, expect to see Romney start to bring out the attack. He's got plenty of cash to run such a race at this point and can afford to do so.
Rick Perry has a difficult task in front of him but has oodles of money to confront it. He has three objectives that he must address. First, he has to demonstrate that he can handle himself in a debate. He's been 0-3 so far and 0-4 would be catastrophic. He needs to have a strong debate to rebound from his previous duds. Second, he needs to clarify the illegal immigration issue. If he can make the case that his state's response was an attempt to deal with a mess handed to him by a federal government unwilling to do their job, that he's in favor of tight border control, that entitlement reform must mean killing the free ride currently given to illegals, and that the legal immigration process must be cleaned up from the prohibitive red tape, then he could win back the trust of some conservatives nervous about his weak impression. Third, he needs to remain above the fray. As much as he wants to attack Romney, he needs to demonstrate how he's not only the candidate with a plan but with a plan that's proven to work. Attacking Romney may keep conservatives from flocking to Romney, but it won't push them into the Perry camp. Right now he's bleeding out voters to Cain and Gingrich, not to Romney, and if he wants the nomination, he needs to turn it into a two man race.
Herman Cain needs to do two things. He needs to continue to hammer home a simple (but not simplistic) message and he needs to avoid appearing petty. His greatest strength is the common-sense message that he conveys and his charming personality that resonates with voters. Remaining genuine and appearing presidential will be his two greatest assets. If he can appear to be the person whose plan will work and if he appears to be a candidate that people can work with, then he will outlast Perry (who has a sizable cash advantage) and do the same to Romney.
Newt Gingrich has the most difficult task in front of him. He needs help from the others. Basically, all the other candidates need to produce evidence why they are unacceptable alternatives. If every candidate is flawed and it becomes simply a question of who's the man with the best plan, Gingrich has a shot. But he can't press the issue. He needs to remain the pig who stays out of the mud. He's still a very long shot, but if he can pull it off, he could be the last man standing.